Monday, January 26, 2015

The four faces of Shaw

Its been a while since I've sat down to write anything, mainly because there has been so much to process lately and the old squishy bio-RAM has been working overtime! After the death of Vonderrit Myers and the ensuing protests many of our neighbors here in Shaw stood up and joined the ranks of the righteous and the outraged. Lots of others responded differently, trumpeting the most racist of sentiments and turning all opportunities for thoughtful discourse into argumentative Round Robins of name calling, self-centered whining and downright bullying against those they saw as their opponents. Most of us just hunkered down like little baby birds, hoping the storm would pass soon. What once seemed to be a peaceful neighborhood full of kindly neighborly folks has turned into a cesspool of cliques, some of which remind one strongly of St. Louis from the 1950's.

But maybe that's just me. Maybe the jerks were just as jerky last year but, for whatever reason, I ignored all the warning signs and I've actually been surrounded by jerks all along. Anyway, let's look at what Shaw actually seems to be in the light of this new spring -- in the spring after so many of us got angry, behaved like children, refused to show compassion and ignored our neighbors' pain as loudly as we possibly could.

They say a crisis shows you what you're really made of and is that ever true in Shaw! This crisis has laid our reality bare with near X-ray clarity. As revealed by recent events, Shaw is like a body whose organs are in revolt, a corpus whose limbs take independent directions, a being with no agreed upon sense of direction. From my point of view there are four main groups of people in Shaw and none of us are on the same page. If you do not find yourself in this list then you may live in Shaw but you are an outsider. There are a lot of us here too. 

Those who hold the most power in Shaw are a diverse group but they in no way represent all of Shaw. I call them the Old Standards. These people are invariably and strongly linked to St. Margaret of Scotland church and school. Many of these people have lived in Shaw for decades and they are almost exclusively white. In collective, this group has always been in control of the most important political and fiscal decisions in Shaw. They often run the neighborhood improvement association to one degree or another. They use the association, the alderman, city government and the courts to redistribute property ownership in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most visible effect of this group's power over the last 30 years is the transfer of about 20% of Shaw's housing stock from rental property to single family ownership. This group is used to making the big decisions for everyone else and they don't take challenges to their power kindly.

The secret weapon of the Old Standards is the undeserved social status that comes with residence on Flora Place. Not all Old Standards live on Flora Place but many do or have in the past. Those who live elsewhere in the neighborhood often strive to buy on Flora Place. At social events and in meetings of the neighborhood association Flora Place residents generally receive a certain amount of kowtowing from the other, less worthy residents of Shaw. Street of residence, religious affiliation and race are the three most important qualifications of an Old Standard. You might become one if you can provide two of those qualifications, but you'll be lucky if you do!

The Old Standards are often supported by the Reliables, a sizable but shrinking number of off-Flora working class whites. Some of these people have spent their whole lives trying to fit in with the Old Standards and never quite make the grade. Others accept their inferiority and settle for supporting the shady class structure imposed upon the neighborhood by the Old Standards. Quite a few of the Reliables have either given up on this fool's errand or were never really into it in the first place. These are the people who repeatedly rise to the occasion in times of crisis and actually do something worthwhile! They provide the rest of us with inspiration and hope for the future. Reliables are generally good folks with good intentions and some actively work for change but too many of them remain silent when they should be sharpening their pitchforks.

There is another group of people in Shaw who have been here even longer than the Old Standards and the Reliables. I call them the Neighbors. This group is made up of the African American families who anchor nearly every block in the neighborhood by virtue of their longevity here. In many cases four or five generations of these families live in and around Shaw. Their matriarchs have been here since time immemorial. Many of the Neighbors own their homes but younger family members tend to rent. The Neighbors all seem to know one another and they form a network of care and support that flies completely under the radar of the Old Standards. The Old Standards don't know (and don't seem to want to know) any of them. When the Old Standards are not ignoring the Neighbors they are doing their level best to get rid of them - one family, one house at a time.  BTW, the Neighbors don't seem the least bit impressed with the Old Standards.

It's hard for me to imagine how a place could include two groups of people so separate and isolated from each other. In fact, it might be closer to reality to say that there are two Shaws - one white, one black, coexisting uneasily, seldom interacting, seldom even acknowledging the other except when forced together at a court hearing. It's rather like an old episode of Star Trek where two star ships exist at the same place and time but in different realities.

Of course I am generalizing but this is, in broad strokes, the reality I encountered when I moved here 15 years ago. Some of this has become clear only in the past few months, but most of it was readily apparent on Day 1. There are no significant bridges between the Old Standards and the Neighbors. Never have been, never will be. Some of the Reliables have coexisted more easily with some of the Neighbors but overall there's not much going on there either.

During the past decade a very important fourth group has emerged in Shaw. The Newbies are quite diverse when it comes to religion, race, and political bent. Early arrivals were mainly from out of state but in recent years they have been joined by an increasing flow of local suburbanites. The Newbies are mostly younger and better educated than Shaw's entrenched groups. They tend to have more money than either the Reliables or the Neighbors.

For me, this is where it gets really interesting. If anything is to ever change for the better in Shaw it will be because the Newbies make it happen. Many in this group are uncowed by the Old Standards and they bring a real desire to live in a just society and the energy to work towards it. Our streets were crowded not just by Ferguson protesters this fall, but also by Shaw Newbies.

Unfortunately, success is in no way assured. Quite a few of the Newbies are as racist as any of the others here. As Newbies buy homes on Flora Place they seem to be falling hook, line and sinker for the same sham promise of meaningless social status that has plagued that street since it was built. Other Newbies are poised to join the ranks of the quiet Reliables - good of heart but more concerned that the neighborhood looks good to outsiders than that it becomes a place of justice. The poison vat that passes for our neighborhood social media website has become what it is largely through the inability of some Newbies to really hear one another and through others' unwillingness to rock the boat. 

So what can be done to change this place for the better? My hope is that the Newbies vote -- in every election. I hope Newbies pay attention to how power is meted out and how decisions are made in Shaw and the 8th Ward. I hope the Newbies realize that while we work, eat our dinners and watch our TVs, there are a handful of people who are deciding the fates of so many of our neighbors. What do you want this place to be in the next 10 years? Are you going to trust that the right things will get done for the right people without your input? Shaw doesn't exist as it does by accident. Our own little apartheid regime is the result of lots of those decisions getting made by a few people while the rest of us sat around and trusted our leaders to do the right thing. As you know, they haven't been doing the right thing - not by a long shot. If they had, we wouldn't be where we are now.

Most of all, I hope the Newbies resist with all their might the tendency to join one of the entrenched groups in Shaw. As you come in your hundreds, do not become an Old Standard or a Reliable or a Neighbor. Instead become a bridge. Shaw has about 5,000 homes. That is 5,000 different families. Imagine what a wonderful Shaw this would be if we had 500 real and permanent bridges. Imagine what that would do for our children and for our city. Imagine what it would do for all of us.