Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part II: Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)

This is Part II of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

One of the reasons gentrification is such a hard thing to talk about is that it pricks our sensitivities to complicated social structures of class, culture, and race. But it doesn’t take long into the conversation to realize that we not only disagree about how these things play into urban development, but also what these things even mean.

Some definitions:

Class-
a :  a group sharing the same economic or social status    the working class
b :  social rank; especially :  high social rank    the classes as opposed to the masses

Culture
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time     popular culture     Southern culture

Race-
a :  a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b :  a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

 

Gentrification is almost always perceived as a racism problem. This is evidenced by the fact that people complaining most about gentrification are almost always implicitly (or explicitly) referring to “rich white people” taking over “poor black” neighborhoods. But we know that redevelopment (in both equitable and inequitable ways) happens in all communities and at the hand of white and black people alike.

Yet, still, this is how the conversation usually goes:

Someone (usually a white someone) of influence in an urban development project will speak of the urban community as one plagued by blight and crime. They will point to their plan to “clean up the neighborhood.”

Or someone (usually a white someone) will move into a neighborhood and claim they’re interested in “helping make it better.”

But, instead of hearing the kind hearts of well-intended people trying to make the community a better place, we think they mean “I want to get rid of the poor black people in this neighborhood.”

Now, we know that there are many terrible people in this world, people who are legitimately racist or spiteful or simply ignorant. And they have done terrible things to other people including, but not limited to, taking over entire neighborhoods for their own interests. But let’s pretend for a minute that not all white people with the means or influence to change a community meet the description of Racist Colonizer. Cool? Cool.

Then, let’s be honest about urban blight and crime.

Because those who fight hand over fist to stop gentrification don’t seem to think there’s a problem to solve, but they’re wrong.

Over the past 50(ish) years, our urban communities have seen a devastating amount of economic and social disinvestment. There’s good reason why the urban stereotype is dirty, dangerous, and disenfranchised (I love alliteration). We can argue about why cities became such a dump at the end of the 20th Century (spoiler: racism has a lot to do with it) but you can’t deny it happened or that it was/is a problem.

In the almost ten years I’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine:

In alleys and on sidewalks, alongside your standard littered garbage, I’ve picked up (and properly disposed of) used condoms, used tampons, used heroin needles, and dirty underwear.

I’ve watched a well-dressed young woman drop her drawers and defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight and then walk away like nothing ever happened.

At least weekly, in full view of my kitchen window, someone uses our alleyway as a urinal.

Human feces appears a couple times a year.

We’ve had 5-6 incidents of theft from our front yard, back yard, or vehicle. Twice it has happened right in front of my eyes by people who acted surprised that I was surprised by their stealing from me.

For a time, someone was hiding stolen electronics in our yard.

I once found a man sleeping under a tarp in our backyard in the afternoon.

I’ve watched countless (literally countless) drug-dealing interactions on and around my street.

I’ve found people passed out on the sidewalk from drinking or doping.

Gunshots. Lots of them.

A man was shot by police within view of my second-story window on a sunny afternoon.

At our old apartment, a woman rang our doorbell late at night and begged for help and said she was running away from her violent boyfriend and could I please save her?

I once woke (with most of my neighbors) in the middle of the night to a woman screaming that she had just been assaulted around the corner and needed help.

Strangers ring my doorbell just to ask for money.

(Oh, golly, city living sounds great, right?)

So, what’s my point in listing these incidents?
I want to illustrate that there are things that happen on a regular basis in mixed-income, dense, urban areas that simply do not happen with any comparable frequency in other places. (Other place have other problems, to be sure.) And that you’re crazy to try and justify and protect these characteristically urban blight and crime issues the same way you’d fight to protect an ethnic food eatery or the right for homeless people to loiter in public parks (both of which I support, btw).

But, what does this have to do with racism?
Well, I didn’t give you any indication whether the people involved in these incidents were black or white. And I can promise that it’s a nice, healthy mix. So my bigger point is that the desire to “clean up the city” it not about getting rid of black people. For most normal residents, it’s about simple quality-of-life things like making the city a place where kids and moms and old men in wheelchairs don’t have to dodge human feces while traveling down the sidewalk.

And for someone to call a white person a racist because they’re willing to say people shouldn’t crap in public is like saying that public defecation is somehow related to being black, which is a flat out, evil lie that should offend all of us.

So, okay. Maybe I’m right.
Maybe gentrification isn’t really about race.
But then what is it about?

It’s about class and it’s about culture.

And class and culture are more complicated and are issues of justice and personal responsibility and values, which means getting at the root of what actually makes us different from each other. So I understand why we would rather make it about race.  We are not responsible for our race or ethnicity. Even a marginally ethical person can and should be ideologically offended by racism. But we all get personally offended by criticisms of our class or culture.

If you ask me–which you didn’t, except that you’re reading my blog so you kinda did–the real gentrification conversation is less about what race of people are moving in or out of a neighborhood and more about

a) how to build a community where there is mobility between social and economic classes, facilitated through our means of housing, educating, socializing, and employing our residents and

b) how to design the community so that the cultural landscape (food, art, aesthetics, etc.) is truly representative of all the residents in the community, not just the new ones with money.

 

But where does that leave us?

I am a young, white, middle-class urban dweller. I may feel powerless at times in my neighborhood but, compared to some of my minority or lower-income neighbors, I have great influence. So I (and my peers) need to be pressed on these two questions. And we need to hold community leaders, investors, and developers accountable to them.

But we can’t have these really important conversations across class and cultural lines if we can’t, first, agree that there are some things about our shared community that none of us should be defending.

Some things are simply uncultured and class-less–
Things like heroin.
And stealing my kid’s bike.

And crapping on my sidewalk.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

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What a Children’s Library is Good For

Earlier this summer, it was announced that the Cincinnati Public Library is pursuing selling off a part of their downtown branch’s facility and consolidating services into their main building. Under normal circumstances, consolidating services sounds like a grand idea. Save space. Save time. Save resources. Right?

The situation at the library is a bit more complicated than that for two reasons.

First, the word on the street is that the library’s facility could be sold off to a private developer, transferring an entire city block of beloved public amenities into private investors’ hands. Our community (OTR) is already burdened under the heavy hand of big investments from people who seem to think they know what we need better than we know ourselves and we’re tired of it. So this is not a welcome option.

Second, most of the services that will need to be moved and consolidated are geared toward youth: the children’s library and garden, the teenspace, etc. (plus the makerspace!). The threat of losing the entire building is scary for parents (and kids) like us who make frequent use of it and its kid-friendly services.

So what can we do about it?

Well, we’ve seen how these things work. By the time the public hears rumors of this sort of thing, backroom dealings have already occurred. So I understand that it’s probably too late to do anything at all.

Plus, maybe the experts are right. Maybe the library can consolidate and still offer the same quality of service. So maybe it doesn’t even make sense to fight it.

But, for those willing to hear, there’s a lot that needs to be said in favor of the library as it is. And there are certainly a few words left to be spoken about the Children’s library, in particular.

 

Here goes:

  • The public library is one of the only free, indoor public spaces downtown. It provides public restrooms, comfortable chairs, internet access, water fountains, shelter from the rain and cold, etc. It is impossible to quantify the public good a library does by its very presence, in addition to any actual literary contribution to society. Losing any square footage, honestly, is a huge loss.
  • Because it is a completely free public amenity, it attracts a diverse group of patrons. So long as you follow the rules (which are few), all are welcome. This kind of inclusive space exists almost nowhere. It is worth protecting. While attending storytime, public programs, or just browsing for books, my kids and I have felt part of a truly diverse community. This is one of my favorite things about living downtown and one of the best things about the library.
  • The children’s garden is one of the city’s only public, enclosed outdoor spaces for kids. Washington Park’s playground is fenced in, as well, but the library’s garden is different. It feels like a natural escape in an otherwise concrete jungle. We’ve had picnics in the garden, school lessons, played tag, practiced bird watching, and more. There is another, very nice, walled garden at the library’s south building, but it is open to all patrons. Adding the natural chaos of children to such a dignified garden may be tricky for both parties.
  • The children’s library is heavy on books and lite on media. There are a handful of computers and iPads available for use (and, yes, my kids use them and love them), but the majority of the space is still occupied by books. Real books. The kind of books many libraries don’t even keep on public floors anymore. Consolidating the children’s library, I fear, means hiding all those lovely books behind closed doors. Which means we’ll now have to request a book from a librarian at the desk. Which means fewer children experiencing the pleasure of browsing through shelves of unfamiliar books to find literary treasure which is, honestly, one of the greatest joys of reading.
  • Because of the way the building is currently laid out, the children’s library seems isolated from the rest of the library. I understand how it’s likely a logistical nightmare for staff and management because, I will admit, I don’t often make my way over to “my books” anymore because it’s so inconvenient. But this kind of set-apart “kid space” is a dream for my kids. We walk into the building and they instantly feel at home. They roam within the confines of their own library without me hovering over. And it’s not really about “safety”; it’s about ownership and comfort. They can wander and browse and enjoy their pint-sized library world with their own librarians, their own kids-sized bathrooms, their own computers to use, their own garden, their own public events and summers camps and storytimes. Babies even have their own toys. My fear is that moving the children’s library to the other building means surrendering their domain and being grandfathered into a building where–like everywhere else in their world–everything is made for adults. This is nowhere more evident than the computer labs in the south building where most of the adults are busy watching music videos, playing video games, and (I’m sure) some are watching porn. What adults do with their free time is their decision, but that’s not exactly the cultural experience I’m hoping to provide for my children when I visit the library. So, it’s nice to let kids have their own space to be kids.

 

A few weeks ago, I thought I might gather some friends to stage a “read-in” in solidarity for the Children’s library and garden. In my mind, I was going to be a big hero and I was going to save the library and we’d all live happily ever after in our safe, spacious, kid-sized literary wonderland. But, like I said, I think it’s probably too late to actually do anything about this. So, I am relegated to writing instead so I can at least feel like “I said something.”

My hope is that, no matter what decision is made about the fate of our library, those in power are able to design the new children’s space to be as beneficial to the community as the current one is.

We love the children’s library. And, if/when it’s gone some day soon, we will damn sure miss it.

Even if we love the new one, too.

 

 

“The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading.” – Charlotte Mason

Camping With Kids: Advice From The Semi-Experienced

Back in May, after we survived our first camping trip after the addition of a fourth child, a few friends asked if I’d share some tips for camping with kids.

Well, first of all, it feels a little silly to even write this. I am not an expert. I am not a “professional.” I’m not even super experienced. Since our oldest child was born, we’ve only been camping about 15 or 20 nights. (That’s not many.) And we’ve still never done any legit backcountry camping (hike in / hike out) with the kids.

But, though I’m not an expert, I’m a fairly confident and competent outdoors(wo)man. The outdoors bug was planted in me at a family summer cottage on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. Then, between summers at summer camp in Northern Wisconsin, volunteering at summer camp every year in high school, working in youth ministry in college, teaching environmental education post-college, and now having four kids of my own, getting kids outside and into the woods is now second nature for me. And since I did a bit of camping before we had kids, camping with kids doesn’t intimidate me.

A lot of my peers say they’re afraid to try camping with their kids, especially the really little ones. And I’m sympathetic. If I’m honest, getting my kids out and into the woods isn’t always comfortable for me, especially with my ongoing battles with anxiety (poisonous snakes, surprise bee allergies, falling limbs, creepy strangers in the tent nextdoor, etc.). But I’ve discovered that the right kind of physical and mental preparation can make a big difference for me. And I have found that the pay off is always worth the time and energy it takes to make it happen.

 

So, here are my top 12 (+1) tips for camping with kids:

Go with friends. My kids get along really well, but they get tired of each other. The past few times we’ve camped, we’ve gone with another family. It gives the adults some quality time together (while the kids occupy themselves with friends). And it means there are more adults to trade things like bathroom breaks and tending the fire.

Stay two nights because waking up and immediately packing up camp sucks. Give yourself a day between arriving and leaving to enjoy yourselves, take a hike, explore the woods, go fishing, etc. If things go really badly the first night, you can always call it a loss and go home early.

Do your research about campgrounds and, unless you’re desperate, steer clear of sparse, open field-style places. We like campgrounds with woods between rows of sites (bonus points for creeks). The trees provide shade and privacy. And the woods will give your kids a place to play within earshot of the campsite. My only caveat is that, at campgrounds with public bathrooms, try to camp near (but not next to) the bathroom. With children (especially girls), camping too far from the facilities means lots and lots of walking back and forth to the toilet. Pro tip: with toddlers and other little ones, consider bringing a travel potty to keep at the campsite to save yourself the walk in the middle of the night.

Cold isn’t fun, but wet is worse. Learn how to keep your tent dry. Trust me.

“Two is one and one is none.” This is a basic survival concept. Don’t rely on only one of anything you can’t do without: one pair of socks, one cutting tool, one fire-starter, etc. For example: I find cooking over an open fire tedious and frustrating. For the past few years, I have packed a simple cooking stove along with the rest of our supplies so that if the fire is taking too long and our bellies are starting to rumble, I can fire up the stove and get dinner (or morning coffee!) started in the meantime. I follow the same rule for headlamps and lanterns. I always have one more than we need, just in case.

Keep it simple, especially cooking. If campfire cooking is new to you, start small. Pre-cook things so you’ll only need to reheat them in the fire. Or eat primarily foods that require minimal or no cooking (summer sausage, peanut butter and jelly, etc.) and supplement simple “add water”-only hot items like soup or noodle mixes, oatmeal, etc. Don’t be ashamed to admit you need coffee (and beer). And bring a waterproof table cloth because it’s so much easier to clean and sweep off than an old campsite picnic table (I learned this trick from a friend!).

Skip the sleeping bags (especially with babies). Sleeping bags are impossible for really young kids. I even find my 3 year old struggles to get comfortable. Consider building a family bed with blankets instead. And, as always, bring a jacket, socks and a hat for every member in the family. Sleeping outdoors can be surprisingly cold, even during the summer. A pair of socks under the blankets can work wonders for conserving body heat. Use a basic camping mattress (you can use a yoga/exercise mat instead if you have one) for insulating the space between you and the ground.

Introduce gear (especially tents) beforehand and practice at home. A few days before the trip, take them outside and each kids the proper way to pitch the tent. Older kids will love testing their skills at helping set up camp, so give them jobs. This will limit the novelty of new gear and make it easier to get down to business once you’re at the campsite.

Bring headlamps or lights, and a safety whistle to keep track of the kids. During the day, we let our kids wander (together) a bit away from the campsite. They stay within earshot, but not always within eyesight. If you’re uneasy about it, teach your kids to carry and how to use a safety whistle if they get lost. At dusk, I make my kids stay nearer to camp and wear their headlamps so I can keep an eye on them. For really little kids, headlamps and flashlights can be cumbersome. Try glowsticks on a lanyard or those cheap neon necklaces instead.

Keep it low-tech. When camping or hiking, our phones are with us but not in our hands. Taking an occasional photo or video is cool, but we keep it minimal. The only other electronics we bring camping are a set of walkie-talkies (with weather radio!). These came in handy the last time we went camping since we had no service on our phones and there was a storm rolling in. I know some friends who bring bluetooth speakers to play music at the campsite, which is kind of nice sometimes. We bring low-tech toys, games, and books for rainy days or nap/quiet time (if the kids need it).

Embrace the mud and dirt. Be okay with your kids getting their clothes dirty (almost immediately). I kind of like a “dirty clothes to play in; clean clothes at bedtime” philosophy. Choose easy on/off shoes for you and for your kids, preferably waterproof ones. It will make getting in and out of the tent easier (and cleaner), but don’t expect to keep a perfectly tidy tent. And since you can expect to get dirty, just take some extra time when you get home to wipe down, clean, and air out your gear before you pack it up for next time.

Store your gear so it’s easier to use next time. Getting serious about camping means curating your gear like you would the gear for any other beloved hobby (fishing, running, birdwatching, cooking, etc.). Our family has a lot of gear, but it is not expensive, high end stuff. We’ve been collecting it for upwards of 15-20 years and it hasn’t cost us a lot of money when you prorate the cost over time. I like to keep things organized (rather than just tossing it all in a single bin) because if I know what I already have, I’ll know what I still need and I can pick it up when I see it (and can afford it). We keep all of our outdoor gear together on one single industrial-grade rack. Things are organized and stacked and packed in a way that makes anything easy to grab and use when needed. (This also keeps things accessible in an emergency situation at home when we may need our sleeping bags, flashlights, etc.)

 

 

And, lastly, as with all parenting:

Attitude is everything.

Your kids will take cues from you. If they are already uncomfortable outside or in the rain or away from their iPad, you will need to encourage a good attitude about camping. If you cannot keep your cool when the fire won’t start or when you can’t read the trailmap, your kids will mirror your frustration. Laugh a little. Have reasonable expectations. Look for opportunities to learn and explore and be okay with things taking longer than you’d hoped. Part of the joy of camping is having the time and space to stop and, literally, smell the flowers.

Enjoy it and they will, too.

 

 

What Darth Vader Taught Me About Heroes, Villains, and Robert E. Lee

Honestly, I hate pop culture references. So promise me now that you’ll for forgive me for this and then I’ll get on with it.

Okay?
Okay.

Twelve years ago, I watched Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. (Oops. Spoiler.) And, in the words of my husband, “It wrecked me.”

The movie was kind of dumb. And I’m not really a fan of Star Wars to begin with. But the short story goes something like this: a young boy named Anakin is prophesied as the one capable of consummating space-world peace. He comes under the tutelage of the Jedi, who wield some sort of impersonal energy field called the Force which can be used for good or evil. The boy is proud and skeptical and, in an effort to save the life of the woman he loves, his loyalty to the Jedi wanes. Through a series of bad decisions, he ultimately chooses the dark side of the Force and becomes one of the most infamous villains in 20th Century pop culture.

There is molten lava and missing limbs and a space suit involved. (It’s all very dramatic.)

And, though movies like this rarely elicit any sort of deep, emotional response from me, what was going on in my head and my heart after seeing the movie was something along the lines of:

“How f-ing unfair! Anakin wasn’t trying to be the bad guy! He was trying to protect his family and the people he loved and he lost everything! He may have been corrupted, but he is a victim of circumstance. Give the guy a break! Give him another chance! You would have done the same thing! Have some mercy!”

Because, you see, I saw myself in the story.

At the time, I was in the midst of a spiritual “dark night of the soul” and I was treading water, doing whatever I could to stay afloat. I had probably made some dumb decisions, but I saw myself just as much as the victim as the villain of my story. And when I thought about the possibility that my road was going to end in my own metaphorical boiling lava pit, it pissed me off.

Here, twelve years later, I’m happy to say I’ve worked through my Star Wars-induced spiritual crisis. But, silly as it seems, what I learned then (and have learned since then) is helping me make sense of a lot of what’s going on in our world today. Most recently, the debate surrounding Civil War monuments and slavery/racism.

So, here’s what I’d like to contribute to the discussion:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that I am corruptible.

If you haven’t figured this out about yourself yet, then it’s only a matter of time. And I pray the lesson comes to you innocuously through something like a crappy pop culture movie, rather than through your own serious, life-altering error. Because certainly some of us don’t really figure out our corruptibility until we are years into an affair, thousands of dollars into embezzlement, or staring a police officer in the face after a drunk driving wreck. And, by then, the consequences can be devastating.

And this is one place I see my peers error the most. They believe they are above ethical reproach because they’ve so narrowly focused on self-correcting in one or two areas. These days, you can join the Women’s March or wear a #notmypresident t-shirt for extra morality points in public and online, but never have to reckon with your blind spots elsewhere.

Now, you need to hear me say that “women’s issues and racism are urgent, important issues to address.” (Quote me on it.) But it is a grave danger to believe that you’ve cornered the market on justice because you wear a BLM t-shirt. (I mean, “virtue signaling” is a real thing.)

Sidebar Bible lesson:

The Bible is pretty clear that “sin” is much more complex than just “doing something bad.” And our capacity for sin is complex, as well. If doing what is “right” is the goal then sin is, proverbially-speaking, missing the goal. Even by an inch. Sin is me as anything other than who I would be at the very height of my righteousness (or, you could say, “right-ness”).

(You may think the Bible is a bunch of hogwash, but it’s more-or-less the basis of our common laws and, whether you acknowledge it or not, the source of many of our unspoken social expectations and obligations. So it might be worth considering.)

Now, back to Robert E. Lee:

If you believe, like I do, in the inherent “fallen-ness” of humans, then while there may be circumstantially “innocent” parties (those victimized by racism, slaves, those defending their families from invading armies, etc.), no one is actually categorically Innocent. This is why the Tragic Hero archetype (which we see in characters like Darth Vader) is a little misleading for those trying to come to grips with their own sinfulness and the evil in the world around us. At its best, the Tragic Hero elicits our our empathy. It humanizes our enemies and helps us extend mercy to the villain. But, it can also exploit our pity (like it did mine) and lead us to justify and excuse evil rather than decry it for what it is.

And this is the other area where we really screw it up.

We have a tendency to pick and choose the people to whom  we assign the role of Villain and who we choose for the part of Tragic Hero. It’s usually based on what side of our favorite political issue they stand on and it usually involves a lot of pointing out the inconsistencies in the people on the other side of the issue while ignoring our own. (Now called “butwhataboutism.” Yes, it’s a thing.)

For some, Robert E. Lee is a Tragic Hero of the South; for others, he is pure villain. It’s possible that, circumstantially, both are correct. If we are honest, we have no idea what circumstances lead people to make the decisions they make about what side they are on. The same goes for other zealots and revolutionaries and political leaders throughout history. Sin–even pervasive sin–in the lives of great leaders and brilliant minds is not a new phenomenon. Mankind hasn’t really changed all that much.

It’s possible to understand how a man ends up on the wrong side of history without feeling the need to justify it. But this kind of empathy can’t happen until you are well acquainted with your own corruptibility and admit how easily you might have done the same thing.

This is why it’s okay to be honest. There is no need to save face. Some of our ancestors got it right; some of them got it wrong. You don’t need to protect anyone’s reputation. We’re all in the “sin” boat together and it’s okay to call evil what it is.

But identity politics has neutered our conscience. It has made us more loyal to those who are like us–Southerners, ethnic minorities, working class, women, Conservatives, Liberals, etc.–than we are to what is right.

We need to get more comfortable with the idea that justice (in the holistic, Shalom sense) transcends these identity groups. And until we’re willing to do that, we can’t work together for any sort of solution for the future. We’re at a stalemate. No one is going to budge. We may as well just relegate public discourse to yelling across across police lines and holding clever protest signs that prove our moral superiority.

So does this mean we should topple the statues? Tear down the monuments? Rename the churches and school and highways that were named after the Tragic Heroes or sometimes villains of our shared history? I can certainly understand the desire. Maybe we should. Heck, tear them all down. All our idolatrous memorials to history and heritage and power and superiority. (Don’t quote me on that. I’m being facetious)

Our idols need to be destroyed. You can either smash the idols in your heart or smash them in the public square. I don’t know that it really matters how you do it. But it needs to happen eventually because idolatry (idolatry of family, of nation, of sex, of power, of the past, etc.) will destroy us from the inside out. It will destroy our relationships and it will destroy our ability to see what is right and wrong in the world around us and in our hearts.

We were created to serve only one master. There is only one noble knight riding on a horse. There is only one King on the throne. He is the hero of this story. And–spoiler alert–his name isn’t Robert E. Lee.

(Or Darth Vader.)

 

Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part I: How I Became The Enemy

Thus begins an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

In 2005, I moved to Cincinnati from Elgin, Illinois. My first job in town was as a bartender/barista at a place called Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine had a reputation. I knew it had a history.

I knew to hide my bartending tips in my sock on the way to my car at night. I knew to make eye contact with the people I passed on the street. I knew that the storefronts were mostly empty after 6pm every night. And I knew that it wasn’t necessary to pay the parking meter most nights because cops didn’t give a rip about parking in OTR.

I knew that the produce at the Vine Street Kroger was never up to par and they didn’t sell organic milk.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was thick with racial tension. I knew this because if I told the man from the street that he could not use our bathroom at 11:48pm on a Thursday night, he would call me a racist.

I knew Over-the-Rhine was a dark and moody place to be.

But I also knew it was alive with a steady current of creativity and strength and survival. I knew that its residents knew enough about all sorts of things to not be afraid to be out at night like everyone else was. I knew that the stories in the news were always only half-true.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was more than dark and moody.

But I swear that I did not know it was the next big thing.

We got married in 2009 and our first apartment was a large loft north of Liberty in an old brewery building. There were a zillion building code violations and my mom probably cried the first time she saw it.

Our apartment smelled like hotdogs on Saturday mornings from the soup kitchen next door. There were cockroaches in the bathroom. There were rats. There were beer and dog piss leaks through the floorboards of the apartment above us. There was no real heating system. There were drunk neighbors. There were loud knocks on the door and the buzzing of doorbells at all hours of the day/night by people walking past. There were drug dealers perched on our stoop–literally–every day.

The landlord may as well have lived in Cambodia the way he cared for the place. Every good thing about that apartment was done with our own hands and our own money.

It was like the Wild, Wild, West.
We were newlyweds.
The rent was $650.

By this time, I was working at a non-profit doing community organizing types of things around the city and I had insight into the things “moving” in Over-the-Rhine. They had been in the works for a few years. There were big-time investors involved. There were things like development strategies and tax incentives at play.

But, honestly, it all happened so quickly.

While we were busy learning to be married and then having kids and working at our jobs, things were changing around us. We were like the proverbial frog, boiled alive in the pot.

Vine Street.
Washington Park.
Conversations about something called “a streetcar.”

We wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood because it was our neighborhood, not because we wanted to capitalize on someone else’s loss. The only person we (personally) displaced was a man who wanted to sell his house so he could move across the country to be nearer to his kids.

Sure, we knew it was probably a good investment. Sure, we knew that OTR was going to “improve” in the next few years. But it was still a gamble. And investing in Over-the-Rhine, in general, was still a calculated risk.

I didn’t think I was the bad guy.
I was just a young, idealistic wife and mother.
We wanted to plant some roots in a neighborhood that needed more stability. We wanted to start something, build something. And it seemed like there was space enough for us here.

I tell this story because it’s important to know that people–low income, high society, black, white, and everything in-between–move where they move for all sorts of reasons.

Because we can afford it.
Because we like the way the house looks.
Because our family lives there.
Because we can walk to work.
Because we want to make a good investment.
Because of the quality of the schools.
To start our first business.
Because we’re new in town and it’s all we know.
Because it’s time to downsize.

Or we move because of a bunch of reasons all mashed up together.

Most people moving into “gentrifying” neighborhoods don’t move there to cause trouble. They aren’t trying to displace long-term residents or raise the rent next door. Often times, they (like we did) think they can help make the neighborhood better for everyone through their investment and community engagement.

But that’s not the way things usually happen, is it?

It’s only a matter of time before I just blend in with all the 30-something Friday night bar hoppers. And then it doesn’t really matter how I got here, does it? All that matters is that I’m young and white, that I like eating macarons, and that my house has (at least) doubled in value since we bought it seven years ago.

Suddenly, I’m the enemy.

Sometimes I still feel at home in Over-the-Rhine; sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I feel great about my investment in the neighborhood; sometimes I feel guilty about it, like my very presence signifies economic injustice.

All that has happened in my neighborhood in the past 12 years and all of my thoughts and feelings about it are too much and too many to share here.

Gentrification is a real thing. Affordable housing is a real concern. Equitable development is, indeed, an urgent matter. We need to be honest about how these issues affect the most vulnerable among us. But we also need to acknowledge that few things are as simple as “oppressor vs oppressed.”

The conversation about the issues facing my neighborhood and others like it need to be stripped of their unfair guilty-by-association politics so we can see each other as neighbors and friends. And that requires telling the stories about how we got here and why we want to stay. We are, after all, real people making real life decisions about how we invest our time and our money and our family life for the sake of our communities.

A community is a living eco-system and the parts all affect each other. There are both intended and unintended consequences of those decisions on the people around us. We need to be honest about how diversifying a neighborhood (socially, economically, etc.) will affect the quality of life as a whole. And we need to be honest about when the positive consequences outweigh the negative and vice versa.

Case in point:
The grocery store now sells organic milk.
But our old apartment now rents for $1800.

 

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

To The Woman Who Wants To Be A Mom (But Isn’t)

I know it’s dangerous business talking “mothering” to the childless when you have no personal knowledge of childlessness. It’s like a trust fund baby encouraging a friend to “just start saving for the future.” So, I get it. And I’ll try to tread lightly.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m not much for holidays, but I know this particular day brings a lot of hurt and heartache for some of my friends. Some have lost babies before they were born, some have lost them after, and some have never even had the chance. Some are still longing for a partner to create future babies with and some, with a partner, have tried and tried and tried and nothing works.

I’m sorry.

Even on the worst of mothering days, when I’m crying in the bathroom alone wishing I could un-mother myself for a few minutes, I still know what a miracle children are and what a blessing it is to grow them and to watch them grow. So I try not to talk up mothering too much, and to not belittle it too much, mostly for your sake. Because I know how it feels to see my dreams lived out in the lives of others. And it really hurts.

It wouldn’t help to tell you that Mother’s Day is a lame holiday, just an opportunity for excited children to buy overpriced “Best Mom in the World” coffee mugs and shamed fathers to buy underwhelming roses. It’s a sweet gesture, and I’ll take all the sweet gestures anyone wants to offer, but it’s really not a big deal to me. But when “Mom” is the one name you’ve always wanted, even the overpriced coffee mugs can seem huge and hard to look at.

I can’t make you feel better, but I want to encourage you in three ways.

First, don’t feel the need to explain your desire away or pretend it doesn’t exist.

You are a woman. And in a perfect world, men and women would interact in a way that made the world of dating and marriage and sex easier to navigate. And in a perfect world, all women (and men) would be capable of bearing children and be able to raise them without the pain and heartbreak of infertility or miscarriage or infant loss.

You already know that we don’t live in a perfect world. But it helps to be reminded that part of what you’re feeling is the same thing we all feel, though in different ways. You know the brokenness of human relationships and human bodies. You don’t need to hide the knowledge of your brokenness or the longing for completeness.

To be sure: Motherhood will not “complete” you. Not in the way you really want it to. But I understand the “new life” symbolism of pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood and I understand why you want to embody it.

You may have a million voices telling you that motherhood is not a big deal that that you can do a million other things other than being a mom and still be a woman. In a way, they are right. But, in a way, they are wrong. It’s okay to want the crappy “Best Mom in the World” mug.

But, don’t obsess about motherhood.

Motherhood will not complete you. It will fill your days and at least 18 years of your life and your dreams (and nightmares). But it will not fill the deepest void you feel inside you. And it will not fill the deepest voids you feel between you and your partner.

Turning a good thing (even a very good thing) into the best or ultimate thing distorts its value and purpose. A sure sign of an idol is our all-consuming pursuit of it. If you “will not stop” until you become a mother or if you will pursue it at all costs, you may want to reconsider the depth of your obsession.

The truth is: you may never be a mother. And those of us who are mothers may some day find ourselves childless. There are no guarantees. Obsessing about something so fragile sets us up for crushing disappointment.

Making motherhood an idol serves no one, especially not our children. Don’t let your desire consume you.

But, please, don’t turn it off.

In the meantime, while you are in waiting, don’t suppress your desire to be a mother. Don’t ignore it and try to fill the longing with something unworthy of it. Keep yourself busy, stay faithful in other ways, and embrace life as it is without a child, put please keep your heart open and longing.

I say this, first, for selfish reasons because mothers need non-mothers. We need friends who have things other than potty training and teething and 2nd grade math homework to talk about. We need friends and family who keep the other, non-parent parts of us alive.

But, once you have kids, it’s hard to make friends with people who really don’t like kids. I once saw a t-shirt that said, “Love me, love my cat.” In this case, it’s more like “Love me, love my kids.” I absolutely want friends without children. But not the kind who think I’ve wasted the best years of my life by being bogged down by four attention-hungry children.

And, more importantly, the world needs non-mothers. It needs them badly.

First, there are obvious needs in foster care, education, adoption, after-school programs, church programs, nursing and medicine, etc. These places need women who aren’t afraid to let that mothering part of them pour into a child who is not (or not yet) their own. Their lives often depend, literally, on women like you.

And even if you’re not built for teaching or changing diapers for a stranger’s baby in the church nursery, I can promise that, at some point in your life, your mothering heart will find a “child.”

It may be as simple as a young mother who needs an extra hand while she digs through her purse at the grocery store (I’ve been that woman). It may be the middle child of a large family who feels invisible and wants to make sure someone big and important (like you) sees his drawing.

It may be a lonely child in your neighborhood who likes to look at your flower garden. Or it may be a college student far away from her parents who needs help finding a job or an apartment.

Years down the road, It may be a younger friend who just lost her mother to cancer and needs a shoulder to cry on. Or it may be an older neighbor who needs someone to read her a book when her eyes go out.

I know this might not make you feel better. Heck, it might make you feel worse because it means admitting that it’s possible your desires may never be fulfilled in the way you want them to be.

Nevertheless, even if you never give birth to a child or never manage to save the money to adopt, I hope you never let the mothering part of you die. I hope you leave it soft and open and ready for whoever needs it. Because we’ve all needed it at some point.

The world is full of childless mothers. Go ahead and be one.

First came bright Spirits…
Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was
Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing
and throwing flowers before here?”
“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
“They are her sons and daughters.”
“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son–even if it was only the boy
that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat – two cats – dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.
The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis

Why I Bring My Kids To Funerals

The first death I remember was a great uncle.
I was elementary school age and I barely knew the man. But he was family and my whole family was there and it was quiet and that’s about all I remember.

For most of us, the death of someone close is the first serious blow to our perceived immortality. For me, I was 14 and it was the death of a favorite uncle. Then, a few months later, a close friend. In the next five or so years, there were a few more: another friend, a few acquaintances, a friend’s little brother, my grandfathers, etc.

I don’t honestly remember much about the ins and outs of the visitations and funerals I attended as a child and an adolescent. I remember how every one was different because every person’s story and family and friends were different. I remember it being confusing. I remember not knowing how quiet I must be, whether or not I could smile at friends and family, whether or not I was saying the right words to those in mourning.

But I remember a lot of hugs. A lot of crying.

And I remember how much the knowledge and experience of death changes us.

 

Death is on my mind because, yesterday, my family attended the funeral of a young man I never met but whose parents are friends. And, of the hundreds of people in the room (maybe more?), my four children were some of the only children there.

 

I bring my kids to funerals.
Not every funeral, of course. And we don’t always last the whole service. (And if I had different kids I might reconsider.)

But I bring my kids to funerals because I don’t believe there are many truly “adult things” (as distinguished from “kid things”) and, even if there are, death is certainly not one of them.

I bring my kids to funerals because they are painful and hard and confusing and uncomfortable. But I’d rather my children fumble through the uncomfortable experiences of life in the safety of a family who loves them and is willing to entertain dumb and silly questions about life and death and how we celebrate and observe them.

I bring my kids to funerals because, some day, someone close to them will die. It might be me. Or their father. It might be their brother or sister or grandparent or best friend. Lord willing, it won’t be for a long time. But it will happen. And, when it happens, I don’t want the experience to feel like showing up to their first job interview wearing the wrong color suit. Hard things take practice. We practice together.

I bring my kids to funerals because my deepest anxieties surround their mortality and I need to be reminded that their lives are gifts and they are here with me now even if I cannot be certain they will be with me tomorrow.

I bring my kids to funerals because I cry–oh boy, do I cry–when someone I love or someone someone I know loves dies. And I don’t let my kids see the vulnerable parts of me enough.

I bring my kids to funerals because babies are like puppies and they cheer people up (when they are not howling or chewing up the paper programs, of course, which is why we don’t always make it through the whole service).

But, more than anything, I bring my kids to funerals because they need to see how people with hope observe death.

I bring them because they need to hear about Jesus and Heaven and “forever” from people who really believe it and breathe it in like it’s the only thing still keeping them standing.

In their short lives, my children have already heard plenty from us about “God loves us” and “God takes care of us,” but they need to hear it from other people–especially people who are standing at that dark cliff of death, are stricken with grief, but can still say “it is well with my soul” (even if they’re not quite 100% there yet).

I bring them because Christians do not grieve as those who have no hope.

Death is still terrible and sad and I hate it with everything inside me. But Christians do death differently. And I want my kids to look at the world and look at the Church and know the difference more fully because they’ve sat in those pews and sang those songs and heard–with their own two ears– the voice of a grieving mothering declare the goodness of God over her child’s death.

This is powerful stuff and, as much as I wish I could, I cannot hide my kids from it.

Beauty, Between Three and a Million Years

IMG_5708

When she hears music, my daughter starts to dance.
No matter what the music is,
something inside her tells her to move.

Yesterday, she heard a song humming
from the phone in the palm of my hand
and came closer to hear,
closer so she could
match her moving to the music.

Then she stopped.
Suddenly.
And looked at me.

“Mommy,” she asked,
“Does God think I’m pretty?”

She is my third child.
Three of four.
And three years old.

In eight years of parenting,
I’ve heard a lot of questions from my kids.

“Why is our house red?”
“Where is Atlanta?”
“How do clouds make rain?”

Now, instead, she asks,
“Mommy,
“does God think I’m pretty?”

It’s such a big, important question
for such a small girl
and it deserves
the best and truest answer
I can muster in the
little time she’ll give me
before this big, important moment
has passed.

In the few seconds it takes me to
quiet the music and
look into her
clear blue, questioning eyes,
her question becomes my question
and my grey-blue-green eyes go misty
and my mind starts to wander.

I see ahead into her future and
I want to warn her that,
eventually,
these silly, simple questions of her
three year-old self will not offer
the answer her 10 year old
or 16 year old
or 30 year old self
wants to hear.

Eventually the question will become,
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Does he think I’m pretty?
“Am I pretty enough?”
“Am I prettier than her?”
“Am I as pretty as I used to be?”

And,
more often than not,
the answer she speaks back to herself,
whether it’s true or not,
will be a quick,
painful
“No.”

Because,
in that moment,
whether it’s true or not,
no simple truth will seem
big enough to satisfy her big need.

But, right now,
with three years behind her
and a million years ahead
and those big, clear blue eyes
looking to me for answers,

I tell her the truth
as simply as I can.

I tell her,
“Of course, sweetheart.”

But I don’t stop there.

I tell her,
“The God of the universe–
the God who made the trees
and the rivers
and the flowers
and the mountains–
He made you
exactly the way he wanted you to be.
And when He looks down
at the world he made,
He sees you
and calls you
‘the crown of creation’
and says you are
the most beautiful of all.”

So my daughter smiles
and is satisfied with the answer
and floats away
to tell her big brother and big sister

“God thinks I’m pretty,”

and leaves me to repeat my answer again
but this time to me
because I think it’s been years–
a million years, maybe–
since I was satisfied
with such a silly, simple, honest answer.

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