Sunday, August 20, 2006

A lazy day in the burbs

Have you ever read an article in a magazine or newspaper that accuses suburbanites of being ill-informed, self-centered cultural shut-ins who refuse to acknowledge the problems of the greater world because they are too busy taking the kids to soccer practice, or playing golf or any number of other pleasant yet vapid suburban pursuits?

Yeah, me too. But now I live here and I can see how they got that way.

There was an article in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a string of shooting in the city's Homewood neighborhood. Six people were shot in three separate incidents during a 24 hour period, including two children ages 3 and 4. No one knows if the same shooters are involved. No one knows if there is any common thread to the shootings. No one is talking to the police.

When I worked in non-profit I used to go down to Homewood pretty regularly. I had some homeowners there who were clients. I did some outreach work with a local minister and we used to do cookouts in the parking lot of the church and talk to residents about homeownership while handing out burgers and dogs. One fellow one time, while eating a hot dog, spent a half an hour telling me why he hated living Homewood. Drugs, gangs, prostitution were the things on his corner that he objected to the most. Meanwhile, the Reverend was optimistically building some new houses trying to attract new residents. I think he was a man ahead of his time.

At one point I was organizing some lawyers to offer a clinic for neighborhood residents who were being foreclosed on (Homewood is the foreclosure capital of Pittsburgh). We actually got a million dollars a year worth of lawyers into the city's most violent neighborhood to offer pro-bono services, not just for one day, but on a commitment to come twice a week for eight weeks with an open ended commitment for individual clients after that. That doesn’t happen every day in this neighborhood. From what I hear that group of lawyers still works on foreclosure issues, although I understand they've moved to a more accessible - and probably safer - location in East Liberty.

Anyway, it occurred to me this morning while I was inspecting my lawn that looks like a shredded-wheat biscuit from the August heat, that today I would never have any cause whatsoever to go to neighborhood like Homewood. It’s a place you read about in the papers: a ghetto where poverty and hopelessness are prevalent and quick-trigger violence is common. I was telling one of my neighbors about working down there and they said I was crazy for even going. I have to admit, looking back at it I probably approached it with a certain amount of naiveté, but I never had any trouble.

I can also see why suburbanites have this reputation for being disconnected. None of my neighbors would ever give a place like Homewood a second thought because it’s so abstract to them. Poor black people and gun violence: The closest my neighbors ever get to this world is if one of their teenage kids comes home with a Tupac CD. We are very far removed from the ugliness of urban living out here, and that distance is – in large measure – why a lot of us came out here in the first place. I know that for me the final straw for city living was the little heroin problem across the street.

Anyway, it was a big story in today’s paper. Out here, people just kept watering their lawns and watching as their kids played with plastic toys in the driveways, like nothing was going on.

It was a nice day today too.


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