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    My Neighborhood, Times Two

    I was back in my old neighborhood a couple of weekends ago, walking toward the farmer's market, when I passed a little knot of people who were looking up and gesturing toward the dignified brick apartment buildings that line one of the boulevards. They were all clearly from somewhere else, and one of them was explaining the handsome buildings, which apparently struck them as odd, to the others:

    "I think they're pretty dumpy on the inside, but they look good from out here," he said.

    I thought that was pretty remarkable, because the guy wasn't actually claiming to have been inside any of the buildings he was talking about. He just thought they were run-down dumps inside. All he could actually see were the buildings' admittedly-impressive outsides, but he didn't or couldn't permit himself to be impressed by them. So he assumed that the handsome buildings were all squalid inside.

    He was dead wrong. I should know. He was pointing at my old building.

    I lived in that place for seven years, in a big pre-war apartment with hardwood floors, and the only thing that was ever remotely squalid in that place was my bachelor housekeeping. It was a nicer place than I really should have rented right out of graduate school; my excuse is that I'd come straight from California, where the rent on even a shabby studio was always basically all the money you had, and so my big beautiful apartment with the fancy view seemed like a steal. And having an apartment like that made feel like I was finally, after so many years of school, a middle-class grownup. I only left that building when I got married and began my weekly interstate commute, because I needed a place closer to my office when I was in town.

    Now, there may theoretically be an apartment building on that street that isn't well maintained on the inside. Maybe they weren't all as nice as mine. But I've been in lots of those buildings, either as a prospective renter or while visiting a friend, and I've never seen any of the dumpy apartments this guy was talking about.

    The guy explaining how terrible the apartments on that street were (don't let the fancy outsides fool you!) wasn't saying that because he knew it to be so. He apparently believed that those buildings were all concealing slum conditions because he wanted (or needed) to believe that. I don't know about you, but when I'm in a place I haven't been before I generally assume that the houses I'm looking at are pretty much the way they look, with the insides roughly as shabby, shiny, or well-kept as the outsides. I would never look at a house with its paint peeling off and say, "I bet it's an absolute palace inside," or presume that a fancy-looking house on the lake is secretly a dump. But for whatever reason, these strangers were not ready to accept that my neighborhood actually was the way it looked. So they had to invent facts not in evidence, the dumpy apartments secretly hidden inside impressive buildings, rather than deal with the reality staring them in the face. Those nice-looking buildings just couldn't be what they looked like, because they weren't supposed to be there.

    (And actually, it was a little bit worse than that. As my spouse pointed out to me later, that guy had to actively ignore evidence he could see, namely the carefully-maintained landscaping around the buildings he was calling dumpy. In his world, the landlords have let those beautiful old buildings run to complete ruin but also meticulously landscaped them.)

    Why not just accept the evidence in front of their eyes? One possible explanation is what I'll call suburbanite bias: the conviction that life in the Big Dirty City is just one long squalid nightmare. I don't just mean preferring to live outside the city yourself. I mean the insistence that living anywhere in the city is so hopelessly awful that anybody would count themselves blessed to "escape" to the suburbs. I should admit that I've never viewed the suburbs as a place to which I would eagerly escape; there's a reason that my blog name isn't "Doctor Pepper Pike, OH." But I see that some people might like a suburb better than the city. What I'm talking about is the belief that everyone in the city, except maybe a handful in luxury high-rises, must be living in a horrifying slum. Call it Urban Derangement Syndrome.

    It could also have been about the specific part of the city my neighborhood is in. The skeptical visitors might simply have been unable to believe the sight of lovely vintage buildings in the black part of town. The neighborhood is actually mixed-race; I've spent years there, and I'm so white I'm nearly translucent. African-Americans are a plurality rather than a majority. And it's also a mixed-income neighborhood, with a healthy share of working-class homeowners but a bunch of doctors and classical musicians too. But the neighborhood has enough African-Americans that visitors from a racially unmixed area might view it as a "black neighborhood." (In this case, that which is not all-but-completely white becomes "black.") They may have refused to believe in the impressive apartment buildings they were seeing because they were under the impression that they were in The Ghetto, where all African-Americans live in miserable tenements and have The Blues. If you can buy decent soul food, it must be a slum. The Ghetto, in this case, is positively full of endocrinologists and cellists, but this isn't about the details. It's about the Big Picture, where all black people live in Bad Neighborhoods. How can there be nice apartments in a Bad Neighborhood? It makes no sense.

    A slightly different version of this problem would be that the visitors viewed an entire side of town, the stereotypically "black" side, as one vast undifferentiated expanse of The Ghetto, and could not process that the "black" portion of a city actually has all kinds of neighborhoods, good, bad, and in-between. One way or another, the outsiders' refusal to accept what they were seeing as real is about a refusal to accept complexity. It's refusal to accept the variety that messes with easy simplifications. The "black side of town" is no more one single place than a city or a neighborhood is one place: they contain multitudes.

    My other neighborhood, in the city where I own a home with my spouse, is also probably misunderstood by some outsiders. That neighborhood too is economically and ethnically mixed, and also viewed as the scary desperate city by surbanites with Urban Derangement Syndrome. Our house was built in the 1920s, and has no room for a huge lawn or huge attached garage. And it's only a few blocks from a high school with a large proportion of African-American students. ZOMG! Black teenagers! It are an urban jungle! Every night, my spouse and I lock our vinatge leaded-glass windows and huddle by the working fireplace in terror.

    Neither neighborhood is an exclusive bougie enclave. They have petty crime; you need to lock your doors, you shouldn't leave valuables in the car, and you shouldn't believe that everyone buttonholing you on the street is telling you their real story. When I first moved in to my old apartment my morning newspaper would get stolen in the morning. In other words, they are neighborhoods in cities, where you should take basic sensible precautions and generally not be an idiot. Does that make them "high crime" neighborhoods? Depends on how you're counting. Are they "dangerous" neighborhoods, where random pedestrians will be waylaid by a bunch of extras from The Wire? No. The scary thugs only live in the secret slum apartments hidden inside nice buildings. They never come out.

    The thing about a city is that no neighborhood is very far from a different neighborhood; a good city doesn't sprawl. A city that does is a collection of suburbs on steroids. That boulevard of brick pre-war apartment buildings is only a block or two in one direction from a street full of blue-collar single-family homes. Half a mile in another direction is a shady street lined with what I can only call minor mansions. One nearby street is a depressed and dispiriting commercial strip. Another nearby street is filled with antiques dealers. Half a mile's run in yet another direction takes you to a park filled with live deer. It's a neighborhood. It neighbors other things. That's the point.

    I left that neighborhood, but I didn't "escape" it. In fact, on the morning that I passed the guy explaining how all the apartments were actually dumps, I was in the neighborhood because I was moving back. My spouse has taken a year's leave from her job, so I gave up the bachelor pad near my office and moved with her back to another big pre-war apartment in another of those handsome buildings that the guy considered dumps in disguise. (Meanwhile, we rented the house in our other urban neighborhood to a group of classical musicians. Mostly string section. You know: animals.) So my old neighborhood is also my new neighborhood, at least for a year. And if the apartments in the neighborhood are secretly dumpy, well, I just rented another. Its dumpiness is still secret.

    After I passed those confident visitors I went to the farmer's market and then back to my new apartment where my wife and my unpacked boxes were waiting. Then I stood at the counter in my newly-renovated kitchen and ate an organic peach. Just another day in the hood.


    Great post, Doc.  You captured it perfectly.  Urban neighborhoods are always misunderstood by outsiders, it seems.  They do have their preconceived notions and nothing--not even physical evidence--is going to sway them.

    As I read your piece I couldn't help but think of Detroit and how outsiders think of the neighborhoods there.  There are some horrendous places in Detroit but your description of the apartment buildings where you live could just as well have been apartment buildings in certain parts of Motown.  There are parts of any city where people, for various reasons, actually choose to live.  They make it a community by appreciating it and protecting it and most of all, enjoying it.

    When someone thinks of a place like Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, they see visions of ivy covered buildings, quirky but cool shops, ethnic restaurants, shady streets with beautiful old houses, and a diversity of culture that can only enlighten and enthrall.  It is all that but there are neighborhoods in Ann Arbor proper where you wouldn't want to walk at night and you certainly wouldn't be foolish enough to keep your doors unlocked, even during the day.

    Your new move sounds exciting.  Don't let the yahoos get you down.  They don't know what they're missing.


    Thanks, 'mona. I wasn't angry. My first response was to laugh at the guy, and my second was to go home and tell my wife so she could laugh at the guy.

    I think the real problem is when those suburbanites let their cartoonish ideas about the Big Dirty City color their approaches to serious policy questions. If you long ago decided was a vast urban hellhole beyond saving, because you didn't bother to know anything about it, then when Detroit hits actual problems you can't process them. Rather than seeing the real, specific problems (some of which have real, specific solutions), those people just say, "See! That place is terrible!"

    And I think, as Mike says below, this is strongest in suburbanites who disparage the city they orbit. People in Grosse Pointe talk about Detroit like it's the third circle of hell. But where would Grosse Pointe be without Detroit? What would Pepper Pike, Ohio be without Cleveland? It's ridiculous.

    I grew up in Iowa City, which is so small that it should perhaps be called Iowa Town. My friends and I didn't have Urban Derangement Syndrome. We were fascinated by big cities. They were exotic and exciting. A little scary, perhaps, but certainly not wastelands.

    I only encountered UDS when I visited my cousins in the suburbs that orbited big cities. They spent their whole lives within an hour of downtown New York or Washington but rarely ventured in. Their parents commuted downtown for work in the morning and then departed directly in the evening, interacting only with office buildings, lunch delis, and fellow commuters.

    I didn't understand their attitude or recognize it for what it was. When I moved to D.C. after college, my cousins discouraged me from living in the city on account of the danger. Not knowing any better, I took their advice and found an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. That's when I learned how vapid and soulless suburbs can be--even Arlington, so close to the city.

    I have never lived in a suburb since, and I hope that I never will. Except maybe Pepper Pike because what a cool name?

    Don't go to Pepper Pike, brother. It ain't worth it.

    I think you're absolutely right that this mostly comes from the suburbs, and it's part of the way people justify both their personal decisions and the local class arrangements. There's a general pattern where people who are a few rungs further up the ladder have distorted, over-generalized ideas about the lower rungs.

    I grew up far enough from Boston, in a small enough town, that we didn't have much Urban Derangement Syndrome. But what we got was centered on the traditionally black neighborhoods, which were often spoken about as terrifying Mad Max wastelands. Then again, most of the ex-mill-town where I went to high school got described that way too (because it was heavily Latino), and it was just a slightly scruffy, perfectly ordinary New England town.

    I have friends in Arlington who love it, but maybe they've found a more urban lifestyle there. That said, I'll take your word.

    Arlington's a bit of a mix, great for those who like their urban experience suburbanized or vice-versa. I also hear that it's got more going on these days than it did in the 90s.

    As someone from the world of antiques, I suspect you misinterpreted that comment you heard. Though no harm, no foul, because it got you ruminating on all kinds of interesting things!

    Still, I'd like to ramble a bit on what I suspect he was talking about. The "dumpy" thing is how a lot of Americans think of the patina of age on old things (more so in the past than now,) the patina that antique lovers love. This is a thing about American culture (mostly pre-Boomer, before "retro" this and that became much more popular) that was different from "the old country" is that many Americans prized brand spanking new stuff over that "old stuff." So in housing they preferred to rip out that ugly old claw foot bathtub like grandma had and put in a brand spanking new one!

    I think he probably was thinking that, while the outside of the building is still impressive, the apartments probably have 80 layers of bumpy paint on the woodwork, worn out porcelain sinks, and creaky floor boards, and he prefers his brand spanking new suburban house, with sharp moldings, wall-to-wall carpeting and brand new tile grout. He has no idea that inside some of those apartments like yours, the kitchen was totally ripped out and replaced with the very same kind of brand spanking new granite counter from Home Depot that he has in his suburban home.

    As someone who works in the world of antiques and art, it might surprise people to know that I am of not just two, but many minds on that part of American culture that prized new over old.  One of the things that did was cause us to be the ones that are more accepting of changing styles, of innovation, modernization. You can historic preservation yourself to death if you're not discerning about what you preserve. (I.E., the American abstract expressionists were not about historic preservation, and they managed to start the process of stealing "the art capital of the world" label from France for the U.S.A. And you wouldn't have what is prized now as "mid century modern" furniture if people never threw away their old furniture because they thought it had become ugly.)

    But to go back to housing styles....the preference for new over old got us in a position where our economy tanks every time people aren't buying new houses. And then there's cars. A Model T was fine for everyone at one time, for a long time, then we started that thing where the cars were different every year and you desired the new design. And don't get me started about fashion, because thankfully, we've finally gotten free of that thing where you have to throw out all your round-toed shoes from last year and buy new pointy-toed shoes. And then about that planned obsolescence thing...

    o/t: I always love the part of the roadshow where they show the face of the appraisee as the expert says "had you not cleaned it, it would be valued in excess of six figures. as it is, I would say perhaps $500.00"

    That's not off my topic; don't know about the Doc's.

    'mericans are the ones that started the fad of taking that old furniture and making it look brand spanking new! Proud of their labor scraping and stripping, making it look like it just came from the store! And it's not just old country vs. new country issues we can talk about here. There's major class issues too. If you look at the inside photos of Jackie O's Fifth Avenue apartment, for example, you see those old moldings with many layers of paint and the scratches and knicks on the furniture.  Yes, we're talking aristocratic taste here vs. nouveau riches. And what's 'merica about if it's not proudly nouveau riche? wink

    Hence: the recent phenom of "shabby chic." Martha Stewart is partly responsible for the noveau riches getting all confused about whether to like things shabby aristo or not. Probably should throw a bone to "Antiques Roadshow" on this as well. However, I must point out one audience motivation that got them such high ratings: find treasure in grandma's attic, win jackpot by selling old dumpy thing to dumb rich person who likes old dumpy things! I'd rather give more points on this front, though, to "This Old House." But there we should also remember that that show's popularity was overthrown by "buy it, fix it to look like new, and flip it in 30 days" shows a few years back.

    Next up, we can talk Donald Trump and his taste in residential architecture and home decoration...

    Donald Trump, a threat to orange tabby's worldwide. He doesn't wash his hair wig, he just skins a new cat..

    This:  "They have petty crime; you need to lock your doors, you shouldn't leave valuables in the car, and you shouldn't believe that everyone buttonholing you on the street is telling you their real story."

    In what neighborhood *should* leave the doors unlocked and valuables in the car?  Maybe it's my years of living in big cities, but even in my little town on the plains, I snap those deadbolts as soon as I walk in the house.  I don't think it's a bad habit.  The worst crime/home invasion we've experienced is a bike and some athletic gear that rolled/walked away on a warm night when WE LEFT THE GARAGE DOOR OPEN LIKE IDIOTS.  Also:  there's a learning-disabled child who has been known to walk into the house without knocking or ringing.

    I appreciate your post on this as someone who lives in William Penn's idea of a "Greene Countrey Towne" that so-called liberals who don't live here like to believe is full of "Latino gangs."  They have gangs in Boulder and Fort Collins too, but the folks there like to believe that my more working-class town is a scary, scary place.    

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