White….and black, and white, and black..

I hear this statement often… “America is a melting pot.”  I live in California, the melting pot of all melting pots, or so I thought.  There are things in life that we accept as inherently true, things we never think to question, about our communities and about ourselves.  For me, one of those truths is that I live in a world of diversity, that my life to date has been spent peacefully co-existing with my fellow man from all walks of life, from every socio-economic status, blind to race, color, sexual preference, religious belief or dog vs. cat preference.  Ok, in all honesty, that last one isn’t true.  I confess, I totally prefer cat people.  But I digress.

I am currently spending some quality time with my soon-to-be-Africa-bound daughter in a little burrough in Queens, New York.  We took a red-eye two days ago, so by my own admission, my time spent actually upright and awake has been somewhat limited.  (By the way, for you parents out there with very young children, please do not assume your child will sleep all the way to JFK just because it’s what the rest of us are trying to do.  And to the dad of the screaming little boy on our flight, next time your son cries “daddy, daddy, daddy” through endless, choking sobs, try holding him instead of shoving that iPad in his face for four hours. Pfft.)  But again, I digress.

After a few hours of napping upon arrival, my not-so-little-anymore girl and I decided to walk into town and see what’s what.  And to find acai bowls.  And coffee.  We are staying in a part of town currently undergoing “revitalization” (translation, $10 acai bowl).  We didn’t have to walk very far to find ourselves outside the boundaries of the revitalized zone and into the area where whites are very much the minority.  It wasn’t “diverse”.  It was virtually an all or nothing difference.  And as we walked another 30 minutes, the population would switch again.  Where we only moments before were virtually the only two non-black or non-hispanic humans on the streets, now there were nothing but.  We’re talking a stretch of land only a couple of miles long here.  The change in demographic was striking and immediate and inherently discomforting.

So I did a little research, probably something I should have done before deciding to stay here and walk the streets after dark. (Sorry, dad, don’t tell mom.)  Despite the overall reduction in crime in New York, this area is one of three where violence is on the rise.  It’s on the radar of the NYPD, getting additional resources and funding to curb this trend.  Gun violence specifically is up 100%.  Yikes.  I’m not an expert on the impact of gentrification on crime, but I can logically assume that pushing the poor into tighter and tighter quarters and surrounding them on all sides by the economically advantaged provides a potent opportunity for increased criminal activity.  But this blog isn’t about that.

As we walked around this little sliver of a city, it was enlightening to watch the human interactions.  And even more so, to observe and study my own reactions to what I witnessed.  In our gentrified quarters, the housing is modern and clean, the grass is green, flowers are everywhere, and I can hear the birds singing from my bedroom window.  What I don’t see a lot of is people.  Children, specifically.  I don’t see any kids playing in the park that runs almost half a mile from here to the beach.  Seriously, I’ve not seen ONE.  It’s weird.  I know they must exist by virtue of the tricycles and play equipment laying around in various backyards but I’ve yet to lay eyes on a little being, or hear their adorable little giggles. Contrast this with the less advantaged part of town, where there are humans walking around everywhere, calling out to each other, talking, laughing.  There are families headed to the grocery store, moms walking their kids home from the beach or the local YMCA (I can only assume given the kids were in their swim gear!).  Humanity on the streets all over the place.  And then, on the other side, back in the gentrified area, bam, the humans start to thin out again, locked inside their pretty homes, I assume, shuttered away from the prying eyes of their neighbors, safe behind their locked doors and private lives.  Again, weird.

Walking around late at night, or late by my standards, I never felt threatened or worried about my own safety.  And only when walking from the bus stop to our temporary quarters last night did I worry about my daughter.  A very high spirited, friendly, young black man joined us for part of our walk.  I know my daughter was a little frightened given how tightly she held to my side, but he was a harmless kid, full of life and humor, sparking eyes and an easy laugh.  He liked my white hair.  And I think he was amused by our initial lack of response to him.  We parted ways after a block or so, and he laughed, wishing us a good night.  My daughter’s remark after he was out of earshot… “that was weird”.  Yes.  Perhaps.  In our lives, people don’t talk to strangers when walking down the street, day or night. Like our gentrified counterparts here, we keep to ourselves, pretending we have little to nothing in common with those we share our neighborhoods, our communities, our city, our lives.  Why?  I’m not really sure.

What struck me most about all of this is the friendliness of those we saw in the predominantly black part of town, the obvious fondness for their friends and neighbors.  They smiled.  A lot.  And laughed, loudly.  There was no fear, no shyness, no ill intent toward one another.  It was a neighborhood full of friendly people, boisterous kids, life.  The reality that  virtually everyone I saw was black seeded its relative importance and was replaced by the idea that virtually everyone I saw was nice to one another.  And to us.  (A thankful shout out to the young lady who helped us get on the right bus last night when the bus we thought we wanted zoomed by without stopping!)  People were just being people and kids were just being kids.  In the grocery store yesterday, the adorable little boy sitting in the cart while his mom and grandmother shopped, pointed at me and said “white….and black, and white, and black.”  And though I initially thought he was talking about my daughter and I and himself, it turns out he was just pointing out the lines in my dress, striped white….and black, and white, and black.

The starkness of the changing demographics here can’t be ignored, but it can be easily left behind when you open your eyes to what is beneath, when you look past what you believe is the norm, past your long ago accepted beliefs about life and how you perceive it.  We are a national melting pot?  Maybe not.  Maybe we’re just a slightly mixed salad, trying to co-exist but never really completely blending together.  Still.  We can be a pleasing dish, yes?  We can take notice of one another a little more, smile, say hello to our neighbors and stop pretending we live in a bubble that we control.  I’m not preaching nor am I niave.  I’m just saying, for me, I learned a little about myself and want to remember it.  People are just people, mostly good, like me.  And there’s more to be seen in life if you care to observe, and think and question, not just others, but ourselves.


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