“A Place Worth Living”: Defending a Stigmatized Neighborhood

This is part of a re-posted series on being a white person in the African-American Hough neighborhood of Cleveland. You can read many voices of Hough, what it’s like as a white woman, Mansfield Frazier’s responsehistory of the neighborhood, and @#!& black people say to white people.

The worst part about living in Hough is that you can’t talk about living in Hough.

At least not honestly, not in some circles. Usually I adjust what I say about Hough based on how my conversation partner responds.

The responses I receive to “I live in Hough” range from hopeful to horrible.

Hopeful 1: Connection

My favorite response is when someone knows the neighborhood and finds a connection to it. Or if they don’t know it, they try to find something they can connect with. Living in Hough may not always be an experience we share, but it’s something we can use to get to know each other better.

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When someone responds this way, I test out being honest. Living in any neighborhood has its conflicts and difficulties, but if I know you see it as a place worth living, then I can hopefully share both good & bad without simply confirming stereotypes.

Hopeful 2: “This is nicer than I expected”

This comes from people whose only encounter with Hough is through the narrative in regional mainstream media. This picture associates crime and poverty “from Hough.” Any positive activities and people are identified as individuals or Clevelanders or an employee of one of its great civic institutions…not attached to the neighborhood itself.

It’s like the old joke of two parents fighting: when the kid does something bad, she’s “your kid,” but when the kid does something good she’s “our kid.”

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Is Hough like Calvin?

But this kind of consistent mislabel is very real, and very harmful to community development and perception. The best way to combat this stigma is to get to know people and the great things they’re doing, which I highlighted in my first post. When folks respond like this, I try to consistently play up the great people here and what they’re doing for their neighbors, to create more positive associations.

Borderline 1: the LOOK

Sometimes I get this incredulous look as if to say, “What are you talking about?  Where you live isn’t even a neighborhood.”

This is called cognitive dissonance: when you spin someone‘s worldview on its head. “Hough is rough” is an easy, knee-jerk response. But you’ll see quickly that I’m far from “rough.” Confronting easy stereotypes with a more nuanced reality creates confusion, and results in that face.

I used to feel like this response was in the horrible categoryBut this can actually turn into a teaching moment.

When you repeatedly hear somewhere is a “bad neighborhood” then you just learn to avoid and look the other way. It is a lifelong task to unlearn these cultural influences, and to confront the more complicated truth of ourselves, and our neighbors…and to expect something better.

When I see the look, I’ve learned that if I play up the positive, and try to model more respectful and appropriate language, others often follow suit.

In the 4 years since originally writing this post, I’ve been surprised by the change in tone and attitude I’ve heard from long-term friends and family…not just towards one neighborhood, but stigmatized places in general. It expands your horizons and empathy to be able to imagine that people you are connected to can live in places that are painted in a bad light.

 

 

Borderline 2: The pat on the back

Scene: social justice networking event. An colleague who commutes from a wealthy exurb out of the county introduces me to someone new.  “This is Meagen.  She and her family live in Hough.  Isn’t that so amazing?  She’s so brave.”

Ugh. Yes, I get the message: You are all about serving poor people as long as you don’t have to actually live with them. But you’re glad someone’s doing it, because this mess certainly needs to be cleaned up.

The difficulty with this well-meaning response is its condescension. And I have the most trouble with it because it’s something that I’ve been taught to do. I catch myself saying things like, “Wow! I couldn’t work with middle school kids! Good for you!”

There’s a fine line between appreciation, and placing yourself at an arms length from “those brave people over there.” This is why I shy away from the vision of urban pioneers, out to save the world. Sure, I want to be part of the solution, but I don’t want to be placed on a pedestal. We need to be in this together.

Fighting racism, invigorating our urban core, and creating a more inclusive society is something we are ALL responsible for, not just the few willing to change their lifestyle.

Horrible 1: “This place should be bulldozed”

Unfortunately some people think that the neighborhood needs to start over. Push out the poor folk, and let the developers have all the land. People in the neighborhood don’t know what’s best for them, and the sooner they buy into the plans of those who are wealthy and well-connected, the better for everyone.

The only way I can wrap my mind around this comment is that the person maybe thinks they are being positive? Maybe they want me to agree with them? I mean, sure, there are more abandoned buildings than we have funds to bulldoze, and they can be a hazard.

But there is a point at which urban development tips into displacement, or we slip into the old cycle of landlords who despise and disrespect their tenants. This is the path that leads to riots. Thar be dragons! Beware!

Horrible 2: The argument

“That neighborhood is dangerous. You’re putting your kids in harm’s way. I can’t wait until you move out.” I get this argument from folks who think any bad thing should be a “wake up call.”

This one is reserved for people who genuinely care about our family and their safety, but are just biding their time until we get over our little idealistic phase.

But living in Hough turned out to be more than an idealistic phase that’s going to pass. We weren’t just flipping the house to make money by renting or selling. We weren’t just living the yuppie life until our kids were in school. This is our home and we got more benefits than were exposed to dangers.

We can transform these attitudes by valuing the beauty of Hough: its rich history, vibrant Afro-centric culture, children playing outside, proximity to cultural assets, political activism, compassionate service to people in need, and most importantly the burning need for solidarity and cross cultural communication. Glimpsing the neighborhood as it really is—filled with diverse people and organizations with a range of gifts and struggles—has indeed been life changing for many of my friends, family, and colleagues.

The Hough Riots was a tragedy that shaped the neighborhood and rocked the nation. When residents of Chardon, Ohio and Newton, Connecticut had nationally televised tragedies in their communities, they said, “This is a terrible thing that happened in a great community.” They said, “It will take us a lot of time and resources and support to heal, but we’ll face it together.”

That captures how I feel about Hough. It has taken a lot of time and resources and support to heal from the riots, but we’ll face the future together.

The idealistic phase will never pass. Originally, I had predicted that even if we did move away at some point, which was a high possibility with our mobile American lifestyles, I would never be able to pretend that my Hough neighbors and their joys and struggles have nothing to do with me. Since writing this post four years ago, as predicted, our family has since moved…to the small town where my husband grew up, about an hour away from Hough (which I’ll talk about in my next post).

But we will always be connected.

Though I am no longer physically there, thanks to social media I still am connected to the celebrations, graduations, fires, surgeries, jokes, and prayers of my Hough family. And it’s not too far for an occasional weekend visit to the renovated League Park or our former church home. Just last year, St Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima, dedicated the new $2.5 million renovation of the worship space. These are just two of many exciting developments that keep us coming back.

So what is an appropriate response to the events that confirm our stereotypes that “Hough is rough”? When kids shoot other kids in Hough, I want to hear the same number of talk shows full of support on grief. Can we please view it as a traumatic experience that requires hope, counseling, and years of love to heal, the same as it would if it happened anywhere else?

As I’ve written in previous posts, none of us are immune from trauma and tragedy. And the history of Hough tells us how quickly communities can change. Less than one hundred years ago, the Hough neighborhood was a pseudo-rich community with elite private schools, close to all the entertainment and shopping available in a booming industrial city. Now it’s full of lead dust and foreclosed homes. It’s also full of child care centers, musicians, hunger programs, and community gardens. And still close to entertainment and shopping!

We are all responsible for that: the good and the bad.

We can all contribute to the solution by stepping out of the media & internet echo chambers that confirm prejudice, and instead open ourselves to the full complexity of reality, and the promise of a “New Day in Hough.”

The stigma of “Hough is rough” is translated into fewer charitable donations, lower housing prices, and lack of businesses. But I see the greatness, and am willing to invest in making it even better.

Join me! Let’s build on the good instead of fear the bad. Let’s analyze the systems and work towards a better tomorrow. We can only make it through the long (and repeated) journey of healing from trauma like the Hough riots or white supremacy if we can see the joy and benefits that make it all worthwhile. Let’s stop the Stigma of Place.

I felt that by writing on Rust Wire, I was preaching to the choir, which gave me the courage to be honest and hope I wasn’t alone. Re-posting here is a bit more vulnerable, because I know less about your reactions, readers. Please let me know in the comments!

Maybe you, too, regardless of who you are or where you live, can be part of the solution just by reading this post. Join me in considering Hough and other inner city Rust Belt neighborhoods as places worth living, working, connecting, and investing.


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