Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

“Hang Out in Another Neighborhood” Day

MLK

I was the opening speaker at the graduation of my Queens elementary school, P.S. 154. I still remember most of the speech. It was a sixth grader’s riff on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.”  He was a hero to everyone, including me.

There were three portraits on the wall of my classroom that year– George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King.  We were a mixed school of different religions and races, and it was as clear as anything that society was changing fast — and that this was the future. We were heading towards a color-blind society where no one would care about the color of your skin, only about how many baseball cards you had in your pocket.

My father was about as liberal as you can get, donating his time and money to numerous causes, but I would cringe when he would mention the word “Negro” or “Oriental,” but eventually I understood that he was extremely good-hearted, just using words from another generation.

I’m now the person from another generation, with outdated language and ideas.   It’s taken me longer than some of my other friends to understand that being color-blind is racist.  I still grumble about the concept of male privilege.   I still catch myself being sexist.   I never was taught about these structural issues in school. We were more about equal rights under the law. Even Martin Luther King, with his mainstream views on integration and non-violence, seems old-school today.

I bring this all up because I had this weird idea this morning, and it won’t make any sense without first giving it some context. I’ve been reading a lot about Ferguson, racism, and the inequality of our society, but much of it doesn’t inspire me in the way that Dr. King once did.   Sure, we can boycott Black Friday or unfriend racist friends, but so what? I know this might sound overly-sentimental, but I’d love to find a way to fight injustice by creating some goodwill between communities, getting people to learn about each other, much as we did back in P.S. 154, when we went over to each other’s houses to do our homework, and experienced neighborhoods different than our own.   Anger at the America is important, and we should be angry, but we also need to feel as if there is hope.

It seems as if America’s biggest problem is that we remain segregated, sometimes even more than I remember in the past. White and Asian people are irrationally afraid of black and Latino areas because of the fear of crime. Black and Latinos feel uncomfortable in white areas in fear of ethnic stereotyping.

Solution — we need a way to start sabotaging this fear.

We’re always creating days online, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” to “Buy a Donut Day,” so why not create a “Hang Out in Another Neighborhood Day,” where Americans purposely go out of their comfort zone to connect with those who live in other neighborhoods, particularly those where the residents are different than themselves?

Imagine if hundreds of white folk and their families went into Ferguson for the day — buying burgers at the local McDonald’s, going to the local church, visiting the park, and getting to know how the other half lives. At the same time, black folks and their families, who are intimidated from entering certain well-off white neighborhoods, are invited WITH OPEN ARMS into these neighborhoods to have lattes at some upscale coffee ship or to do some shopping at the local stores.   Even if it is just for one day, it will make everyone less afraid of each other, because we would all cross the invisible red line.

And it is all perfectly legal.   And it might even been fun.  At least it would help demystify each other.

New Yorkers — “Hang Out in Another Neighborhood Day” — Upper East Siders — go have brunch in the South Bronx. Walk around. Support the stores there. Those who live in South Jamaica — have you ever been to Tiffany’s in Manhattan? Come in and take a look. Even if you can’t afford it now, at least realize that you are free to browse freely at any time.

Los Angeles — Beverly Hills folk — go have a BBQ sandwich in Compton, and then go to some of the small businesses in the area. Folk in Compton — have you ever seen the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel?   Why not?

Some people are going to hate this idea, because it doesn’t really deal with the systematic racism in our society.   That the white people get to go back to their fancy neighborhoods while the others are stuck in a police state.   It is an idea that isn’t angry enough.   Structural inequality will not be solved by gimmicks.    I get it.   But since I am old school, still inspired by my elementary school speech promising Dr. King to further his hopes of a less segregated society, I present this corny but radical little idea to you for your perusal.

23 Comments

  1. Here’s the initial problem with the idea; if I go to your neighbourhood and you go to mine, all we’re seeing is the infrastructure. And we fall into the same traps that we fall in as tourists: we believe we get it because we’ve been to the space whereas we really really really don’t. We can’t spend a few minutes in a space and see anything but the surface. We can take our pictures and then scuttle off to the next place. But all we learned is what our eyes could quickly grab. And that isn’t really experiencing a space.

    I think back to all the trips I’ve taken. I’ve seen a lot of places. But I don’t really get what it means to live in those places. What it means to try to make a living in those places. For that, I would need to move there, live there, try to get by there. That’s the only way I’d get even a most basic understanding of what it is like to exist there.

    Emphasis on the “basic understanding” since every person’s experience will be different.

    That said, I love spending time in other people’s neighbourhoods or towns.

  2. Hi Neil….I’m fairly new to your blog but I think this is a great idea. My husband and I live in the desert of Southern California where there is a huge divide between income and race. There are gated and guarded communities protecting mansions that are 3rd or 4th homes for many residents. Meanwhile there are full time residents that live in communities where there water is suspect and electricity haphazard. The fear of those who have very little to fear is offset by the those who have very little to lose.

    I think your idea would be very helpful for all of us to reach across that divide and get to know the people of our greater community. Two other things I find helpful is to volunteer for certain organizations that don’t necessarily go in to fix communities that are different–but to help in the way a neighbor would help another. For example, my father who certainly talked like a racist (he was NOT a liberal) was always kind and compassionate to people he knew–regardless of their race. It was sort of hard to wrap my mind around how kind he could be with those he routinely said racist and bigoted things—but when he saw anyone as a friend or neighbor it was as though he was color-blind.

    Another thing that is helpful is to travel to other cultures that look and live very differently from our own. Being the only white people in an entire city helps break down barriers. Seeing how life can work well (and often better) in a country that appears to have little is also eye opening. I think there are a lot of things we CAN do. The challenge is to DO them. Thanks for the thoughts…. ~Kath

  3. If visitors go to Ferguson and don’t get killed and visitors from Ferguson go to an upscale area and don’t riot or get arrested, that will send a BIG message to everyone that the fears are unfounded. I went to Paris with my mom last year and brought this money belt because I read stories about pickpockets everywhere. Within one day, I realized that our fears were heightened by our minds, and I never used the money belt. It doesn’t mean there weren’t pick pockets, but it was demystified in one day. Nothing will change structurally, but at least in the minds, people will see the other neighborhood in a new, less scary way, especially younger people.

  4. I’m not even suggesting anything very organized. Just going to other neighborhoods and have a bit to each and do a little shopping and hanging around. Seeing another neighborhood as part of your city.

  5. People grow up in West Los Angeles and have never been east of La Brea.

  6. We all need to step outside our comfort zones regularly, not just in regard to race and neighborhood but in other areas as well. We spend too much time creating safe bubbles around ourselves, online and in life. Break the bubble. Challenge your beliefs–all of them. Dare to admit that human beings are complex, flawed, and beautiful. Embrace your contradictions and allow others to be fully who they are (like Kathy^, who saw that her father’s words did not define him as much as his actions did.)

  7. Sweet notion. I think it needs to be less of “a day” though, and more of a continued effort to expand yourself outside of your usual stomping grounds. Make it a weekly visit. Pick an area, find a restaurant, do your laundry somewhere new, share the wealth and keep your heart open to talking to new people.

  8. This is why I love my little community. We are every one. We cover a hell of a lot of spectrums right here.
    And hey Neil- I spoke at my 6th grade elementary school graduation and I did a riff on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
    Little idealists, even then, weren’t we?

  9. Before all this Ferguson stuff happened, some friends and I were talking about how our group of acquaintances was so homogenous and that maybe we needed to work on stepping outside our circle to meet some new people. A couple of weeks later, I ended up locked in a somewhat forced relationship with just such a person who, it turns out, is a little off her rocker. I’m now the cautionary tale amongst our friends.

    Honestly, I’m to the point where I don’t know how to create good will. I have people unfriending me for being a racist, and I’m on the liberal end of the spectrum. I don’t see how you can bring a whole country together when you can’t even get the left and the far left to not yell at each other.

  10. I don’t live in the US, but I think this post has a message for neighbourhoods everywhere. Awesome post, Neil.

  11. I really don’t have anything smart or witty to say…other than this – I love this post! I’m going to take that attitude with me through the month of Dec and be open to new adventures. In whatever neighborhood they happen to occur. Great post!

  12. I think this is a fantastic idea. My husband and I have tried to make a point to do this and it DOES make a difference. We have sought out restaurants, stores and festivals in a variety of ethnic neighborhoods where WE don’t “fit in.” If nothing else, as a privileged white person, it gives me a sense of what it feels like to be a minority in these situations. But, even more than that, I think it helps to break down walls. It helps us to stop seeing people as “other” and helps us better realize our human connectedness.

    It’s been a while since we’ve ventured out in this way. Thanks for reminding me that we need to do it more often, and that we need to take our kiddo with us.

    Namaste.

  13. This is both a good post (in spite of your FB status second-guessing yourself!) and an interesting idea, with which I agree. The special-needs residential school where I’m working has probably the most diverse staff I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, but when I was talking about this the other day with another staffer (white male), he agreed, but also pointed out that none of us tend to socialize with each other (he was being specific about himself actually, and I had to agree as well; I don’t even know most other staffers’ addresses, only the towns where some live). I would personally like to take that next step.

  14. While I applaud your spirit and like your idea, to me it seems a tad bit underwhelming. I left the rich white ghetto the minute my mids graduated from high school and now live in about as mixed a neighborhood as you can find in America. My neighbors are hispanic, haitian, black, and African. We are the only white Jews in sight. So where do I go? Right now I’m in deep mourning because my favorite restaurant just closed. It was in Dorchester, deep in the hood and had the best soul food in the world. I am deeply saddened about the pies and frird dough.

    And that is my problem in a nutshell with your idea, at least for my family. We’ve already gone way past a visit and I’m guessing we aren’t alone. I’ll discuss with my daughter who attends a black college in the ghetto with a mosque on it’s campus and her first generation Chinese Portuguese boyfriend. 😆

  15. I think it is a good idea in general. It is, on a different scale, what exchange programs like AFS were built on. AFS was founded after World War II as a way for young people of different backgrounds to get to go and live in other countries and learn about other cultures in order to promote understanding and decrease the chance of another World War happening. I participated in an AFS exchange in high school and went on another exchange in university and both were powerful experiences for me.

    But we need to recognize that your idea, like Lenore Skenazy’s “leave your kids at the park” initiative, can have different consequences for different people. White parents leaving their kids at the park can pat themselves on the back for being “free range” while black parents leaving their kids at the park can expect a visit from Child Protective Services. If I go into an all black neighbourhood, people may stare at me but that is likely the worst that will happen. If a black person goes into an all white neighbourhood, they are more likely to be harassed just for being there. Have you read Karen Walrond’s post on that? https://www.chookooloonks.com/blog/affected

    We do need to get out of our homogenous communities, for sure. I’ve lived in diverse communities and I currently live in a more homogenous one (although I work in a more diverse area). Personally, I feel more at home in a diverse community because it inspires me, teaches me, and promotes understanding.

  16. Yes, that’s a good idea. It will help.

    But the hard core problem remains. The rule of law protects everyone’s rights, but it is not applied uniformly.

    Cultural racism and classism are important issues, true. But I believe a hard look at our institutions—legal and economic—and the way they corrupt the rule of law, is priority number one.

    in many ways, the world should perhaps revisit the speech you gave at PS 154. No doubt it talked about the elimination of discrimination through the rule of law, and you assumed that the newly-minted laws of the time would have an effect.

    Legislative tinkering in the USA and elsewhere has since eaten away at some fundamental rights—and the results are egregious. Perhaps more speeches like the one (I assume) you gave at PS 154, about law as a means of social reform, should be revisited. Many new laws criminalise the victims of discrimination and economic oppression, just as much as the old Jim Crow laws did. People of good will must actively reject them, through political means.

    Like I said, Neil.

  17. I live in the other neighborhood. Most of my neighbors speak Spanish. It’s funny the looks I get when I tell people where I live – a lot of people freak out a little. I chose to live here because I think it is more fun and interesting than suburbia.

  18. This may not be the answer, but at least it’s something.
    I think a lot of us feel uninspired. We need to feel connected.

  19. Hi Neil, do you remember me? I used to be a regular, but stopped going to most blogs, just checking in on you, love that you finally got that divorce, you seem better, happier more together :-). I love your idea! I think it is grand. It does not work much where I live in Taos all neighborhoods are a mix, I live in one of the worst being an artist, so pretty much we are all forced to interact :-). Which is a good thing.
    Happy holidays to you. xoxo The other Annie

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