community (or how to give a damn about your fellow human being)
This is gonna ramble. And I may rant a little. But I will try my very best not to be incoherent.
I belong to this social network called Nextdoor. As social networks go, it’s pretty useless. But the intention behind it is a noble one: a way to connect neighbors–to build virtual communities, I suppose. Because we all stay inside our air conditioned whatevers, looking at bright screens instead of taking the time to walk in the park and share bright smiles with the people who sharing are our air.
I’ll admit–I don’t know the names of almost all of my neighbors. I know our building managers–who are actually neighbors–but other than that–I know them as the nurse who wears scrubs and comes home around the time I grab mail (if I grab it). Or the lady with the little baby who lives next door. Or the lady who scowls every time she thinks someone is slamming a door. There’s the pothead with the dog he neglects daily, that howls all day, most days. There’s hot grad guy and sweet old lady with the dog. And creeper who likes to watch me swim while he’s on the treadmill. And fussy 20-something girls who really like their hair.
I live in a big high rise on the edge of one of Denver’s great parks–10 minutes from downtown and so close to the Botanic Gardens I can see fireworks on the fourth from my balcony and listen to summer concerts for free. It’s a nice, tree lined neighborhood just a few blocks from Colfax–Denver’s most notorious street. It’s the heart of gay Denver. I’ve lived here just over 10 years, this year. And for the most part, I’ve loved it here. Not everything–no. I could do without the constant drone of construction and the horrifying competition for parking. But, mostly, Cheesman has been good to me. It’s healed my heart in a lot of ways, all while it broke it too.
Here, in Cheesman, is where I started outgrowing my city. Yes–it is MY city. It will always be my city. Even when I’m in California. Even when I move from there to Boston or New Orleans or–Hell–Buffalo or Toronto. I will always come back. And I will always miss the city it used to be. My home.
I once vowed I’d never leave it. But people die. People survive. People move on. They find themselves in a city full of strangers. In a city they’re not proud of. In a place whose heart seems to have been transplanted with the flimsy cardboard that encompasses most of the new builds nowadays. In a place where art isn’t appreciated or encouraged. In a place that values touchdowns over academia. In a place where things are too clean. Too bright. And too easy.
Lately, the things that made Denver rich have been replaced by hollow facsimiles. People are rude. They don’t say thank you. They stand by and watch. They don’t volunteer. They barf on people’s lawns and hit parked cars. They tear down 80 year old businesses to build condos that stay empty and give San Francisco rents a run for their money.
But Cheesman has weathered the gentrification better than other neighborhoods–or at least, I thought so. I would smugly beam with pride as my neighbors told off City Park idiots when they racially profiled people sitting innocently in cars. I thought to myself, “Man, I never knew people in City Park were such racist assholes.” But over the weekend, I was so sad to read a really ignorant posting from a neighbor in Cheesman. She was lamenting how she couldn’t enjoy a summer night because of all the homeless people in the neighborhood. Everywhere she went, there was some drunken crazy. Hell, they were EVEN in the Walgreens down the street. Stealing a t-shirt. For God’s sake. And she wondered what she could do.
I bit my tongue and sat on my fingers. I would not engage the privileged white woman. I would not. No. Surely, someone would give her the smackdown. To my dismay, only one person did. And he said what I wanted to say. And then promptly got drowned out by the chorus of “when I moved from Highlands Ranch to Cheesman”–and you might as well just stop reading there. There was a time when a Highlands Ranch idiot would pee their pants just driving by.
I was angry–sure–but more than that–just UTTERLY sad.
Most people who know me now, who didn’t grow up with me, assume I am just another privileged white lady. I speak well. I have two Master’s degrees. I live in a fairly nice apartment. I donate to charities. I have health, dental, and all the other benefits. I make decisions about people’s futures on a daily basis. I’m moving to one of the most expensive cities in this country. I fit the part. I have all the rights of any other white female born into this unequal, corrupt bullshit mill.
The only way you could know where I grew up is if you noticed how my speech changes when I’m tired. Or if I outright told you–which happens often.
As much as it pains me to say this: I am gentrified. I have more in common with that woman who moved here from Highlands Ranch than some of the people I grew up with. And it pains me to know that part of surviving poverty and “thriving” has meant I’ve had to abandon parts of myself in Westwood (which is changing so fast, it hurts my heart).
I have to remind myself, often, that I am not disadvantaged anymore. Though I would argue that poverty is a lifelong struggle and my disadvantages now are mostly psychological and invisible. They still exist inside me. Poverty is not just a financial position. It is a way of life and a way of being.
Unlike some of my privileged peers, I worked hard for this life. So, it’s very hard for me to hear these same people go on (and on) about how the poor and homeless need to work more or do something with their lives. Because how many of these people were just lucky enough to be born? Some people win the birth lottery. Others aren’t so lucky. How many of these people are just as mentally ill, but can afford the good drugs and therapists?
Poor people and crazy people and homeless people and privileged people all have the right to exist. They have the right to be themselves in public spaces. To breathe air. To ask for help. To laugh too loud. To cry. To smile. To eat. Sleep. Whatever.
As long as they don’t hurt anyone. And reminding you that things exist that make you uncomfortable or guilty or sad–these things are not violent acts. But your wish to erase them from sight IS.
What can you do to stop seeing homeless, crazy, poor people in this neighborhood? Be a better person.
Try to see them as human beings who are just as precious as your daughter or your mother or a dog at the damn shelter.
They are someone. They matter. Someone loves them and misses them and wishes they knew where they were.
Try buying them a sandwich and sitting down with them for a conversation. Ask them about their lives. Ask them about the imaginary friend they’re yelling at.
Donate to fantastic causes that help people in our community find housing and work and mental help. Give your time and your money and your white person privilege.
Write to people who make laws and fight for people. Don’t support politicians (like our asshole mayor) in their efforts to make these people disappear because it doesn’t help bring in tourist dollars. Be a rigid pain in the ass about gentrification efforts in our area. Don’t let them knock down affordable housing in favor of frat boy funhouses. Fight for the character of our city. Don’t be just another idiot who sits by and watches while they gut everything.
I know what it’s like to have nothing. To be afraid you won’t eat the next day. To live in absolute terror that your mother’s glasses will break. I only survived my childhood because people like Sister Pat and my 6th grade teacher bought us food and school supplies. Because Catholic Charities bought my mother glasses. Half my college education was paid for by foundations and community groups that believed in me.
We live in a world where, in ever increasing numbers, it’s okay to build Go Fund Mes. We don’t look down at people who do those things. But we don’t fill up our food banks unless it’s Christmas. We don’t see people as worthy of time or respect. Take a little more time to realize you are just a heartbeat away from that life. And it’s not another country. It’s your own backyard, and it sure as Hell should be.
Don’t like it? Fix it. Don’t sweep it under a rug and think it’s suddenly clean.