When I look at Georgia Avenue, I see it through an overlay of light. Petworth is the first neighborhood where I've had my own place to live; it has the sidewalks that take me to fresh-roasted coffee and $2.50 Jamaican patties, the Guyanese grocery store and the big open library. I live across the street from my friends, and next door to a man who, despite his ill health and limited English, never fails to ask after my mother. This is how I take it in, and it's how I'm going to remember it.
None of which means that I don't see the cracks in the sidewalk or hear the sirens at night. It's not exactly perfect. But it's mine, and I find things to love, because I'm here. And I'm going to make the best of it.
I have lived, worked, and traveled in very rich and very poor places, and every one of those communities has reinforced for me a very simple idea: that every neighborhood is somebody's neighborhood. It belongs to the people who have lived there, because when you live somewhere, it becomes part of your story, part of your identity. Even if you repudiate it, because that repudiation then becomes part of the story.
And yet it is still societally acceptable to comment on these places as though people do not live there. When we say that a part of town is "ghetto," which is to say run-down, or neglected, or not meeting our aesthetic standards, what we are saying is that a place like that, it's not worth loving. But love isn't just about the place itself; it's about association, the things that happen there and the setting as part of the totality of the experience. People fight and fail and fall in love in housing projects too. And even when windows are broken and barred, the sun still shines through.
Richard Sherman has a beautiful and timely piece in Sports Illustrated about not forgetting where you're from, even when that place gets less than stellar reviews from critics. The main topic of the article is about DeSean Jackson and his place, or lack thereof, on the Philadelphia Eagles roster due to "gang ties." But the subtext, at least as I read it, was about this expectation that we cast off the parts of our history that others find undesirable, even when the truth is more complicated:
Those men with DeSean in the social pictures and the police reports weren’t his closest friends in childhood, but when his father died and few people were there for him, they were there. When a tragic event like that happens, the people who are around are the people who are around, and they were there for him...
But go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too, because I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up. We aren’t afraid to be associated with the people who came up with us.
At the risk of going deep, I'm going to say that this article reminded me of the importance of narratives, and how easily and insidiously they can be co-opted. Your story is your story, and it's not my place to come in and say, "Oh, what a terrible sad neighborhood you grew up in," any more than it is for me to say, "I've never met your mother, but she sure looks like a whore." When we make these generalized, dismissive criticisms about communities that aren't our own, we make it shameful to love and survive there. We're taking away the opportunity for people to name themselves. And, in a world that needs as much of it as possible, we're leaving out all the light.