(That was fake HTML markup. I occasionally appropriate computer languages to express tone or to make disclaimers. Sorry?)
I do love Parker & Otis--and the DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center), and Brightleaf Square, etc. etc.--but much of what I love about Durham did not get and could not have gotten a mention in that NYT article. I do not live in the Belmont or West Village (though I have lusted after those "historic urban lofts"). I live in an old house on Burch Avenue with 5 other people.
Our street is technically its own mini-neighborhood, but we're just across West Chapel Hill Street from the West End, a historic, predominantly black neighborhood where the median household income in 2009 was $20,000 less than that of Durham as a whole (source). We intentionally chose the neighborhood, and actually, when we were looking at the house, there was some concern from one or two housemates (though not expressed expressed in such crass terms) that Burch Avenue wasn't poor enough. We might have looked at houses in the West End proper if not for the fact that my dad was already on the verge of cardiac arrest having heard of gunshots fired and cars broken into on our street (more on that another time).
You may already know why our thought process looked like that. You may be familiar with buzzwords like "community," "hospitality," "downward mobility," "relocation," etc. You may also have read and been deeply impacted by (or not) (hint: I was) Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution and, as a Durhamite, the witness of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House, and the spread of New Monasticism.
I'm naturally idealistic. After becoming familiar with the content of the above paragraph and much more, joining and working at Asbury Temple United Methodist Church (a predominantly African-American church that has strong outreach to the neighboring community, Northeast Central Durham, AKA "the bad part of town"), and living in the West End as part of the Duke Chapel Pathways summer program, I was ready to move to the ghetto and leave my doors unlocked as a sign of trust and hospitality.
OK, I never had THAT romantic of an idea of the whole thing. And I realize this post probably already has a cynical tone, and that is not my intent. But I've learned some interesting--and frustrating--things since moving onto Burch Avenue (where I've lived for a year and a half now).
There's plenty to question in terms of paternalism and white guilt--yesterday my Ethics professor, Amy Laura Hall, quipped about the fact that she doesn't have a TV, something white people like to brag about. That would be me. As if my sacrificing television (but not, let me point out, Hulu and Netflix) somehow makes me a "good" white person.
But I'm going to set that aside for now, because I've already written way too much, and focus on a topic that I just hate dealing with: gender. Growing up, I never gave much credence to feminism of any sort. I was a woman, but where and how I grew up meant that it was never (or rarely) an obstacle for me to succeed academically, athletically and otherwise. In high school, I dismissed feminists as bra-burning fanatics. In undergrad, I railed against professors who insisted that I use general neutral language in my papers. Only in recent years have I started actually to experience the ways in which being a woman can become a liability, even when you don't see it as such or act in accordance with the stereotypes.
This "liability" came into harsh focus a few months ago for me. A young man with a mild but significant mental handicap had befriended our house and begun coming around regularly. There were other issues we as a house had to deal with, like him asking for food and money, but the most frustrating thing for me was the process of realizing I couldn't offer him hospitality in the same way that my male housemates could. This young man presented a special challenge because his differently-abled-ness involved not only low social inhibitions but also a very short temper--and this guy was about 7 feet tall and stronger than he knew. Although we wanted to be welcoming to him, we eventually found we needed to set some boundaries, and for myself and the other female housemate, that meant not allowing him into the house when we were home alone.
It made me very angry to have to set those limits. I am not afraid of people. I have done plenty of walking in Durham after dark when it probably wasn't safe--but that's just how I operate. I may be naive, but I also know that there is danger inherent in some of the choices I've made for my life--and I embrace that danger. As I was thinking about writing this blog, my dad passed on an email from a Duke Divinity grad who was at a workshop he had led recently at a church. I assume my dad had talked about hospitality, radical inclusiveness, outreach, etc.--and this man made an observation: that ministry like that could be dangerous.
I've thought a lot over several years now about where I might live as an adult. I want to be able to live in a neighborhood like Burch Avenue or the West End. I've been challenged on this point--what about when you have kids? The neighborhood I lived in for the first 4 years of my life got rougher while we lived there, and when a bullet shattered the glass doors to our downstairs playroom (my sister and I were upstairs--I don't remember this, and in fact I only learned about it a few years ago), my parents knew it was time to relocate.
I struggle with that. Why should I remove my children from danger when I'm surrounded by neighbors unable to do the same for their children? A major struggle I have with ideas of downward mobility and relocation is that I know I would always have a safety net--even if I divested myself of money and possessions, I still have a father who cares about me very much and would do anything to help me if he could. Most people in the West End, or Northeast Central Durham, have no such recourse.
And my questioning is made all the more difficult by the fact that I am a woman. I'm not sure my father would have allowed me to move into my current house if it hadn't been with one other woman and 4 men (we're now evenly matched, 3 and 3). The whole point of almost everything I believe about the Gospel is that it's not safe--but being 5'2" blond woman puts me in a very different position than even a white male. I'm inclined not to care about my own safety--but I have to, if only for the sake of my parents and my boyfriend, who understandably want to protect me.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this--sorry to trail off. I haven't resolved any of these questions. If you have, you're probably fooling yourself, but I welcome comments from fellow questioners.