This is for Quanita.
I like coincidences. A lot. Not really because they say something about how fate would have it (not my thing), but instead because coincidences so often instruct us just by chance. That’s why I found two stories – one so sad and serious, the other so sad and satirical – on Iraq compelling. And just today I came across two stories about changing neighborhoods. One is a musing on a lost sense of home in Washington, D.C., the other is about activist work against new residents.
Just on that description, one can’t know the real issue here: race. Or, we could call it wealth and have a slightly different discussion. Or, if we wanted to neutralize the whole thing, we could call it the housing market. But let’s look at what is driving two articles by the color of their skin and what they ask of writer and reader.
The first is on CNN.com today, yet another story about how brown people are moving into “traditionally white neighborhoods.” It is noteworthy here that the “s” word does not come into play: segregation. Because that’s what this really is about, in the end. Anyway, the story starts with a description of how the town of Woodbridge, Virginia is resisting the influx of Latino citizens. And onward to other cities, spoken in general, social science-y terms. The story is foregrounded by this comment:
Many of the nation’s biggest counties have long had large minority populations. But that diversity is now spreading to the suburbs and beyond, causing resentment in some areas.
That’s an important frame. Diversity is now spreading to the suburbs. What is so interesting, for me, is how this becomes an explanatory moment for the article. It is supposed to explain why reactions have been so unpleasant and hostile, as if suburbs had the natural, cultural, and historical right to be free of people of color. Diversity in the suburbs could be a part of a larger narrative, of course. For example, we could note how certain aspects of the economy are making old city-suburb divides less common than in the past. Or how the resiliency of certain groups – Latinos, in the context of this story – have led to alternative stories about how those groups live, in particular, a new kind of relation to the suburbs. Or maybe just how diversity is a fact of life in the U.S. and the old segregated bastions we call “suburbs” are increasingly coming to terms with a multi-colored, multi-cultured world just like everyone else.
But the frame is about “spreading,” which is a deliciously and viciously ambiguous word. Like a disease? Like word-of-mouth? Like good influences? Like bad influences? Delicious for the speculative writer and thinker. Vicious, though, when it turns diversity into some sort of virus. CNN.com ought to be more careful.
Then, at my dentist’s office, I was nervously (hate the dentist!) reading a week-old Newsweek. You know, how (depressingly) global warming deniers are funded and organized and sowing immovable doubt. Apocalyptic shit. Tucked in there, though, was a “My Turn” essay by Kenji Jasper. Jasper, a youngish black guy from Washington, D.C., now living in Brooklyn. His essay is thoughtful and moving, describing a return to a neighborhood he can’t recognize. It used to be a place where folks struggled and worse, but is now what we like to call a “gentrified” neighborhood. Jasper talks about how memories remain, even when the faces of people and buildings have changed so much.
The essay is nostalgic. It is a nice reminder of something often forgotten in talk about gentrification or “urban renewal”: people actually lived, for decades and often generations, in these gentrified or renewed places. The places mean something; they are a home. Homes are filled with all sorts of attachments. Jasper gives us a nice reminder of that sort of thing – or maybe even informs a bunch of folks of this simple fact of human existence. We all come from somewhere. We all make a home, for better or worse, somewhere, no matter the struggle.
There’s a lot to say about these two articles coming together – well, that is, together for me, today.
First, it is noteworthy that the question of “diversity spreading to the suburbs” is published under the guise of a news article, whereas Jasper’s reflections are in the first-person mode. Fine. I like the first-person mode. It offers a lot of insights news articles pass over. Of course. At the same time, it suggests something about the reality of certain problems. At CNN.com, the spread of diversity to the suburbs is couched in sociological data and the like. Demographics. Trends. Big social issues. You know, the kind of talk that makes something seem big and important. At Newsweek, the first-person makes the problem of displacing communities largely personal, as if nothing about us as a nation or culture is at stake. A lot is at stake, actually, namely how we have come to value certain conceptions of home (the suburbs, to which something is spread) and forget about the very home-ness of other places (poor communities, on which the language of renewal is built). Ugh. I’m not liking this. This story could have been about a very different relation to displacement, say, one that looked at how LIFFT in Miami has dealt with the displacement of African-American communities…that’s a different story, for sure.
Second, and building from this kind of reporting of stories, there is the implicit affect. We expect poor, black communities to be displaced. It’s how we do things in this country, what with fluctuating and all-important things like “housing markets” dictating the terms of our social geography. The first-person mode of reporting matches this nicely. It’s about memory and nostalgia, something we can all, with a bit of effort, empathize with – I remember when my mother and father moved out of my childhood home. Even empathize at the very moment Jasper tells a really sad, socially provocative story. Not his “fault,” to be clear, just inherent in the format. I’m thinking a sociological, demographic, trend-laden report might provoke a bit more discussion of our character as a country.
The suburbs? Just the inversion: the unexpected. What is worthy of this story on CNN.com, really, is that the suburbs are – unexpectedly – dealing with social and cultural changes familiar to so much of the country. The story could be about how white people freak out when other languages are spoken in their presence from brownish faces. The story could be about how the South is encountering a new sort of racism, this time directed from middle and up class whites toward Latinos, rather than the typical directed toward African-Americans. But this story is driven by the unexpected. Seriously, is anyone surprised that Southern whites are struggling to deal with racial difference? No. Fair or not, that’s exactly what we do expect from Southern whites. But the suburbs invaded by diversity? Who would have thought…
Instructive coincidence, for me. Two interesting stories whose long, cultural histories are born out from rhetoric to content, from sense of importance to authorship.