Sunday, February 10, 2008 in , , , , , ,

Living with Racial Difference - thoughts from a suburban transplant living in an urban environment

A thoughtful, probing program aired tonight on our local PBS station. Entitled "Legacy: Being Black in America", it featured a dinner with prominent African-American individuals where they explored and discussed their personal experiences and their thoughts about American society as a whole in relation to race.  The attendees ranged from TV reporters to scholars to dancers.  I have heard many thoughts on racial difference, and seen many documentaries, historical films, and had my own personal experiences to draw from.  This program did bring me some new ideas about racial difference, and I was glad to hear them.  It also got me thinking about this very important issue, and I decided it was indeed time to bring some thoughts on this to my blog. 

I have known for a while now that I would want to write about race.  The question was when and how to begin?  The very first weekend I began writing for this blog I watched a documentary by Spike Lee entitled "Four Little Girls".  It covers the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, AL that killed four young black girls during the midst of the civil rights struggle.  I was moved by hearing the stories of the families of these four girls.  I had many thoughts that day, but such a serious issue was not something to bring up in my first few entries.

Being Black History Month, now seems like a very good time to open this issue and begin to lay out its relationship to my current life.  This is much too large a subject for one entry, so today I just hope to lay a foundation.

As many of you may know, we moved to a century old house in the northern part of St. Louis.  We are close enough to downtown that you can actually see the Arch from our rooftop.  The issue of race in our society was unavoidable with this move.  One could say that it came to our doorstep, but really we came to its doorstep instead.  

St. Louis is an extremely racially divided town.  With the exception of a very few areas, almost all the black population of St. Louis lives in the Northern half of the city.  Delmar Blvd is considered to be the unofficial dividing line between the 2 halves.  Aside from college I have lived here almost my entire life, and before the last few years I had never even ventured into many of the northern neighborhoods that are now our home.  

I grew up in West County, the heart of white suburban St. Louis, and as a youngster would have had no reason to even think of venturing this direction.  My experience of the city was in trips to the occasional ballgame, science center, art museum, and other cultural attractions boasted by St. Louis.  I also grew up in the 80s, which was not a kind time for this metropolitan area.  It was the tail end of a terrible decline that left much of downtown and surrounding areas vacant, crumbling, and just plain desolate.  There would have been no reason for my family to venture beyond the corridor of culture along Highway 40.  There were no attractions, no restaurants worth wandering for, and no people that we knew.

Some of my own, and most formative experiences with racial difference occurred in high school.  My suburban school was part of a desegregation program that sprang from the roots of the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954.  St Louis adopted an interdistrict bussing program that allowed inner city students in failing school districts to choose to attend county schools.  According to William H Freivogel in his paper "St. Louis: Desegregation and School Choice in the Land of Dred Scott", there are 13,000 to 15,000 students participating in these programs each year.  

Though the (almost 100% black) city students were bussed to our school there was still a marked difference between that group of students and the general (and majority white) suburban student body.  I never had any problems with anyone, but remember the distinct feeling of just feeling separate.  The slang was different, the clothing style was different, and our ways of relating socially were different.  High school can be a very tough time trying to find a group of individuals to fit with, and being an introvert I was probably not as adventurous as I could have been.  My few interracial friendships came through organizations like my choir and theater programs, where we all shared a common activity.  Likewise many of my best same-race relationships came from these programs.  It wasn't so much a question of race as it was of shared experience.  

I remember it was harder for the city students to participate in rigorous after-school programs.  They faced a long ride home anyway, and the stay until 4  or 5 pm at school for a rehearsal usually meant they were gone from home from 6 am in the morning until 6 pm at night.  There was not really any way to have a city friend over for dinner, or to hang out after school since usually there was no way home but the bus.  This naturally creates some separations between people.  You just can't connect as well when you can't be together easily.

Fast Forward to 2007 and our move to Hyde Park...  
You may have seen our house, and here is an image of the rest of our street.  
And then the rest of the neighborhood...


 As you can probably see from these pictures,  there are a whole lot of houses in Hyde Park that are literally falling apart.  These houses are the silent witnesses of the economic depression of the inner city of St. Louis, and its largely black inhabitants.  Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods are well over 90% black if I had to wager a guess.  Maybe over 95%.  When these first neighborhoods were built 100 years ago this was a German township by the name of Bremen.  My mother's side of the family has lived here essentially since these houses were built, and her family spent her childhood living in the North St. Louis neighborhoods that are now collapsing from neglect.

So, what happened?  Well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But the result is that this has been one of the most economically deprived and socially crippled areas of this city.  And considering what poor shape downtown was in 15 or even 10 years ago, that is saying a lot.  Approximately half the houses in Hyde Park are abandoned.  Some blocks only have 1 or 2 habitable houses.  Our neighbor Marie has lived on our street for her entire life, and says this area really hit rock bottom about 25 years ago.  There was a heavy amount of gang activity, gunfire, and general urban warfare here at that point.  Other areas of St. Louis like Lafayette Square were much the same.  Gradually things quieted down - in part because residents left for quieter, greener pastures and the gangs left to find other victims that were more worth their crime time.    

This neighborhood is like the doppelganger of where I grew up.  Urban vs Suburban.  Black instead of White.  Impoverished instead of privileged.  Empty instead of bursting.  It is a ghostly reverse - the negative space in the wake of suburban growth.  My life has kicked into a weirdly ironic mirror image of my childhood.  I now live in one of the areas where students are bussed from every day to attend county schools.  My daughter is the only white child in her preschool class and 1 of only 3 white children in the entire school period.  When I visit the grocery store I am generally the only white person in the entire market - perhaps 1 of just 2 or 3, and generally those others are just employees.  I have not seen another white shopper there in any of the times I've been there so far.  I had never been able to consider just how dramatically segregated this city is until I experienced being the minority.  I now appreciate just how blind I was to this sensation.  I can only imagine having lived my entire life feeling that way, and I am very conscious that this separateness will embody the childhood experience of my daughter.  Her school years will be vastly different from my own.  I am OK with that.  We all must handle feelings of difference as we grow up, and learn to truly be at home with who we are. 

And so ends my introduction to our current place and position in our new community.  If I'm feeling up to it next weekend I'll tackle a bit more about how this neighborhood fell apart, and how it applies to our nation as a whole.  

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