Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two Kinds of Gentry

“Why don’t we talk about the meeting last night for those who weren’t there?” a neighbor suggested as eight of us sat in her living room after a community dinner. My feelings about the event in question were still rather jumbled, so I passed the torch to another neighbor who had also been there.

The night before, over 25 people had crammed into a small nearby living room to discuss the kids of our urban, low-income neighborhood. As the various teachers, professors, non-profit workers, and councilors introduced themselves, I realized something: not only were only three of them male, but only two of them were black. As a white woman in the room, I felt like a statistic.

Many ideas were shared—a summer ceramics class, more publicity for our community garden, some kind of Saturday school—but I had an eerie sense that we were crippled from the start by our status as outsiders, a bunch of white women who sit around eating hummus, teaching art classes, and wondering why these urban kids aren’t flocking to our community garden.

“...There was a lot of good energy in the room,” my neighbor concluded as I was jerked back into the postprandial dinner conversation. “There are good people moving into the neighborhood, and I think they’ll do a lot of good.”

“Speaking of that,” another neighbor interjected, “did you hear the neighborhood association is considering raising the income requirements?”


“I know. I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to see gentrification happening here. I want it to keep its native culture.”

I scratched my head again. Had no one else noticed that of the eight white people in the room, all were college graduates, most had masters degrees, and several were working on PhDs? I assumed whatever was meant by “gentrification” involved a different class of folks, ones with larger paychecks who wanted lower taxes, not our over-educated selves who taught ceramics classes and planted community gardens and experimented with vegan recipes and bought energy efficient appliances.

Either way, I knew both kinds of “gentry” were equally far culturally from the kids we longed to serve, and I didn’t know how I could point my finger and cry “gentry” at other folks. I will try to help my neighbors serve the kids who walk our streets, but I know we do so rather perilously: we respect some aspects of the urban culture, but to serve the neighbors with the tools we have we unknowingly call them away from that culture.

We are of course well-meaning, and can only give what we have to give. For now, that’ll be ceramics classes and community gardens. I hope we can meet our neighbors somewhere in the middle.


Mary S said...

Em, I am intrigued by your post once again. So, not to criticize but to add a thought to your own very thoughtful post:

I wonder if asking some of the people of the very neighborhood in which this group met and is trying to help might give a different perspective on what might be helpful and useful to those in the neighborhood.

Just a thought that you may accept or reject but that occurred to me. Then again, I do not know the situation as you do and may be wrong here.

But if I'm reading you correctly, I think I see your quandry and think you have a wonderful, very cogent, and thoughtful (what's the word I'm looking for here?) question (?) that is unexpressed and difficult to put into words. Then again, of course, I am not in your situation and perhaps my comment is inappropriate. If so, simply discard this comment; I will not be offended.

So, with no criticism intended, I would just like to comment that if I were part of the group, I'd share your quandry and I think I'd ask whether some of the people of the neighborhood might be asked to a meeting to find out what exactly it is *they* see as needful in this situation.

Please accept this comment as coming from an attempt at a positive addition to your thought. (And once again, don't hesitate to discard this comment if you find it offensive; but I do not mean it that way.) MCS

Em the luddite said...


Thanks for the feedback! It just so happens that your comment comes right in the middle of a lot of blossoming of my relationship with the neighbors next door (a house of two women and nine children), and it gives me plenty to think about as I end up in conversation with them.

By the way, I really do appreciate your feedback, and didn't mean to imply otherwise on the last thread (and hadn't taken anything personally). I was just trying to be sensitive to my very divergent crowd of readers, since I tend to end up in the intersection of a lot of conflicting passions. I do appreciate your thoughts.

Thanks for the idea, and I'll keep it in mind with the folks next door.