Last week I began a series arguing that racial and socioeconomic diversity is the number one issue facing the Adirondacks. My multi-part argument is sustained in part by overwhelming demographics that I will be presenting soon. But there is a deeper moral and cultural dynamic to my argument far more important than statistics. I need to get to it first or the rest of the argument will suffer a lack of meaning. As always, I’ll try to accomplish that with a story.
In the early 1980’s I lived on the South Side of Chicago. My apartment was in an old brick high rise that was owned by a slum lord. Consequently the management and service ranged from poor to appalling. Despite the many elderly and disabled residents, the 1930’s-era elevator was out of service on a regular basis and sightings of the repair truck were infrequent. I remember one woman who was on dialysis and regularly had to schlep herself and her things nine floors. Heat was not reliable. Someone sent an aerosol can down the incinerator shaft and blew it apart; it was not repaired and rotting garbage began to mount in the basement. Roaches and rats ought to have been charged rent. The security system was inoperative. The lock on the front door was warped and frequently remained jammed in an open position.
There was a management office on the first floor that was staffed by a rotating cycle of people who would arrive on the job with either an indifferent or officious attitude, become increasingly hostile over the ensuing weeks and then disappear. Eventually the office sat unstaffed.
There was little to be done. For one thing, tenants’ rights were not in vogue on the South Side at that time, either in law or in practice. However the crux of the matter was that the population in the building was not equipped to oppose this kind of pervasive institutional neglect. The building was about three quarters black and poor, by and large people who came from a history and environment of oppression where political leverage was in short supply. There was also a large contingent of Vietnamese Boat People recently escaped from even worse conditions, coming to live in America at great peril and sacrifice, almost all who had disadvantage of not speaking English. There were many residents over the age of sixty, on pensions or aid, most without the energy to contest conditions established by a landlord whom none of us ever saw.
This was what most people in the building were used to. This is what they accepted. One has to live in those kinds of circumstances and come to know people in order to understand – to feel deeply – the tremendous sense of dignity possessed by men, women and children who live under oppression and accept it as a fact of life without giving up their humanity, their character or their good will. I have lived in that world and I have lived in the highest echelons of white privilege. I can assure you in which context I have repeatedly found the most powerful expression of our human values.
The most dramatic lesson was still to come, thanks to a man named James Pierce. James was a few years older than me, polite, generous, sober and composed but intense. James was fed up with apartment matters and looking to do something about it.
One afternoon I was chatting with another tenant in the lobby when James came walking by. The conversation quickly turned to the conditions in the building. Both of us mentioned we had experience in political activism and organizing. James, who had plenty of natural leadership skill and passion but no experience, was keen to see if we could do something working together. A few days later the faulty building security led to a woman being raped in her apartment. That was the final straw.
We formed a 24 hour security detail, reviewed the existing landlord-tenant laws, documented violations and incidents and engaged a high-powered civil rights attorney pro bono. At the right moment we formally established a tenants’ union and began escrowing rent. Long story short, we eventually prevailed. The landlord abandoned the property, the city engaged a management company and the building was completely refurbished.
In the middle of this tussle James invited my wife and me to a wedding. The wedding was in a Baptist church in the heart of what was at the time was as poverty stricken and violent a neighborhood as could be found in Chicago, nested amidst the South Side projects. On the afternoon of the wedding my wife and I drove to the church and entered through the front door to a raucous, music-filled celebration the likes of which I would have wanted at my wedding. There were about three hundred people in attendance. We were the only white people in the room.
There were a handful of looks of surprise and one glance that seemed to hold suspicion, this from a teen-age boy. Other than that the welcome we received was as warm as I have ever experienced. There was no effort in it, no posing, nothing forced. It was simply a sense of genuine joy and community in which we shared almost immediately. The color of our skin was irrelevant to all except my wife and me and our awareness of it rapidly faded away. We had a fabulous time.
I remember that afternoon as though it just happened and I remember the next day too. That day, in nearby and all-white Cicero, a black family who had dared to move there was torched out of their home, which burned to the ground.
The lesson I learned from this, which I will apply to the Adirondack question next week, is two-part. The first part is that we human beings tend to rope off, both experientially and symbolically, entire neighborhoods, entire classes of people. I know of almost no white person who would ever venture willingly to the neighborhood where we were invited (even today, when it has been remade by urban investment and the removal of the projects). The closest they will get to it is to quickly drive past it on the Dan Ryan Expressway, ignorant by choice of the realities of life there, ignorant of the true nature of its people who at best are rendered in the destructive imagination of stereotyping. Yet many white people I know will opine about the inner city, express various wisdoms that belie the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about.
The second part is that these divisions, these sequestrations, are unequal. A black family living just off Jefferson Avenue in Detroit may have no better idea of what it is like to live in Grosse Point Park just up the street than a white family living there knows about the inner city, but surely these gaps in knowledge are not on a par. Sequestration may be a two-way street, but it is not a level street. It is a steep hill, an inexorable gradient.
When we consider the issues of socioeconomic and racial diversity in the Adirondacks, I contend that we must first remember the truths of inequality and sequestration, truths laid bare by the lessons I learned thirty years ago.
Photo: My Mother’s childhood home just west of the “Wild Hundreds,” South Side of Chicago. My Grandfather John Rinkema built the house by himself in the early 1920’s and operated a still in the basement during the depression.