Another reader entry in the It’s So Complicated series about living in the poor part of town. This reader is responding to reader Alicia’s post from the other day, in which she said that living in a rough neighborhood of North Philadelphia has been a blessing to her and her family. Here’s this reader’s counter-perspective:
Like Alicia, I live in a shithole, but, unlike her, my perspective on the conditions of my community is not as positive. I’ll explain why that is.
First, I grew up in a comfortable middle class community with a solid religious foundation (even though I rebelled against this as a teenager) and a large, close-knit, functional family support system. I did not move to my current city because I necessarily wanted to live here but simply because circumstances led me here. Furthermore, I am white and thus of a different ethnicity than the majority Hispanic people I come in contact with on a daily basis in my city. I don’t know if Alicia is of the same ethnicity as her poorer neighbors, but I merely disclose this background information to admit that it could affect my perception of my particular situation.
That said, I do not have the same stories of neighborliness and charity in my community that Alicia has in hers. It could very be due to the fact that I am not neighborly and charitable enough myself and thus haven’t been open to such experiences. I think it also has to due with my being white and not Hispanic, especially when so many of the Hispanics here speak little or no English. If I can’t communicate with my poor neighbors, how can I ever begin to understand them and forge those bonds of community? Language aside, I think the biggest hurdle that keeps me from seeing beyond the shithole aspects of my community goes back to the issue of culture.
My community is dominated by a degenerate culture. In my previous comment, I talked a lot about Mexican culture, but here I’m not referring to that ethnic culture specifically, though it may contribute. The culture I’m referring to is, for lack of a better term, “ghetto” culture. This culture is by no means relegated only to Hispanics or blacks but seeps into all lower class ethnic groups. It’s a culture of selfishness, hedonism, irresponsibility, sloth, and violence. In short, it’s a culture of sin. Yes, I’m sure the comfortable, middle class culture of my hometown definitely had its share of sinfulness masquerading as respectability, but it doesn’t blatantly dominate the culture in the way the ghetto culture does in my current community.
Granted, my job experience over the past three years that I’ve lived here could be coloring my experience. I’ve worked in education, social services, and now at the public library in the hollowed-out downtown, all of which have provided me the opportunity to observe the worst excesses of this ghetto culture.
First, I worked as a substitute teacher, which is not necessarily easy for anyone, but which was made harder by the fact that I am white and my students were predominantly Hispanic (90% or more in most cases). My classes would vary in their receptivity and respectfulness, but I would often encounter racial animosity (for example, students would often ask “Do you speak Spanish?” and when I said no, they would immediately start speaking Spanish to each other). Inevitably, if a student was acting up and I reprimanded him, I would get the classic retort that I’m just “racist.”
The schools were often in poor areas and the students were all poor but it was not their poverty but their ghetto culture – their utter lack of respect for authority, for others, and most especially for themselves and their impulsive desires for instant gratification and ease – that made it difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to teach them.
In my social services job, I got to see the worst cases of parental neglect and abuse due primarily to drug addiction but also to gang affiliation and general depravity. In these interactions, children were treated as mere possessions to be fought over, often by various multiple fathers and one mother, than as vulnerable individuals to be loved and raised with care and affection. I also got to experience the ineptitude of the whole foster care system and the utter lack of foresight or anything greater than mere mitigation in the operation and application of social services in general.
And now, in the library, the clientele is composed largely of the same “lumpenprole” variety from social services. There’s the chronically homeless and mentally ill – but also plenty of the drug dealers and gangbangers that prey on them. Intermixed with them are many ghetto folk who behave like overgrown children in that they want to get their own way all the time, get something for nothing and feel obligated to act out (belligerently, even) and be irresponsible without any repercussions.
Having said all that, there are undeniably many decent and kind people living in this community. It’s simply hard to notice and focus on them, at times, when most regular interactions are inundated with unpleasant individuals. Throughout many parts of the city I live in, the people I see walking about and hanging around have so little in common with me that it instantly precludes any relationship. Yes, there’s the issue of race, but there’s also the lack of care in personal appearance and the often gang-related tattoos – especially, head, neck and face tattoos – that cause me to put these people in the category of those who I don’t want to know. I know the old saying that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but so many people look gross, unfriendly, and even downright menacing that it’s hard to make any other conclusion than what they are presenting to you.
I don’t want to be prideful or judgmental but I would rather not have anything to do with these types of people and I’m sure many of them feel the same about me. It’s almost like we come from different planets. How can we ever form an actual community based on trust and mutual obligations? We can’t, which is why, beyond the various networks of gangs and other tribal affiliations, there is very little sense of real community in this city.
I know that these wayward people are precisely the kinds of people that Jesus would minister to. I know that these are precisely the people Jesus demands me to evangelize, to save their souls. I know that Christ does not want me to dismiss or scorn others, no matter how flawed or how much they may hate me. I know that I should not be a coward and retreat into the self-indulgent confines of my own atomized existence but should heroically go out and forge an actual respectful, giving community, as Alicia has done, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable difficulties my own city poses.
Yet, honestly, I would much rather live in a community where people who think and behave like me already live; where this sense of community already exists. If I had the opportunity and ability to move out of the city I live in now for a “better” community, then I would do so without a second thought.
UPDATE: Reader P. comments below:
While I don’t live in a sh*thole myself, my neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by sh*tholes. Last year my younger brother worked as a lifeguard at our community pool, which employs some kids from the surrounding areas. It was there that he met one of those kids, a colleague I’m going to call Marcus.
Marcus was an 18 year old black teenager who already had a son by one of the girls in his neighborhood. He showed up to work about half the time, and we suspect that he was behind a series of phone burglaries, since poolgoers’ phones always seemed to disappear during his shifts, but the administration wasn’t motivated to investigate the matter and pointed out that anyway, Marcus’s absences should be forgiven because he really needed the job to support his kid.
One day, Marcus decided he didn’t feel like working, so he called in sick. He then proceeded to blow *his entire paycheck* – $800 – on a studded leather belt and a pair of Yeezy’s. We know this because he vaunted it all over social media. The pool administration knew about it too but still didn’t fire him (fair enough, they didn’t fire him over previous absences so they clearly didn’t care.)
I’m sure Marcus grew up in a broken home, didn’t have good male role models, blah blah blah. But at what point, if you have kids and are living in a neighborhood populated by Marcuses, do you cut your losses and run? That culture is going to be corrosive to your children.
Both of my parents grew up in rural sh*tholes where the majority of people were on welfare and living in trailers. Their family situations were sh*tholes too. Abusive parents were just the tip of the iceberg. I’m eternally grateful that my dad worked his butt off to get through college and find a decent job that got him out of that place. His siblings didn’t, and it shows in their kids. I have a cousin in jail for raping his underage sister.
A caveat – I don’t think sh*tholes are a lost cause. But I feel sorry for people who think that they can just move somewhere and single-handedly change it for the better, because they’re in for a hard landing. One person or even a single nuclear family isn’t resilient enough to resist the culture of a place, much less change it. Maybe if you had a group of families moving into a sh*thole together, that could work because they can support each other, but if you’re by yourself you’ll burn out fast. This really gets to the heart of the Benedict Option: without taking concrete steps to form communities that nurture a Christian culture, which forms the basis for a Christian faith, we won’t stand a chance against the forces of liquid modernity. We can’t go it alone any longer.