Have any of you all ever been evicted? Ever lost a home for any reason? Even if it’s an old house in the middle of the city that could probably use a lot of time and money that you don’t have, it’s still home.
I spent a couple of years on my old blog talking and posting pictures of my old house and my old neighborhood in Milwaukee. People didn’t understand why I stayed–people thought that it must be depressing to be so poor and living in such a poor area. Well fuck yeah, there were plenty of depressing times, but it wasn’t the fault of my neighbors or my house.
People who don’t live in communities don’t quite get how communities work. Communities aren’t all about the suburban folks having a cocktail party (or whatever it is y’all suburban folks do), or some tv drama about desperate white women behind picket fences. I learned all I needed to know about how a community succeeds by living, tumbled down and broke, right alongside people who were careful of me, then accepting of me, and then my friends. Community meant that Ashanti could go to the corner store and the couple who ran the store, who had lived in a flat above that store for 30 years, knew her name and her favorite candy. Community meant that when Kat was wild and running the streets, the prostitutes working the avenue would look out for her and make sure she got home safe. Community meant that if Yolanda next door was cooking rice and beans or making sandwiches or a pitcher of koolaid, she shared with my kids. It meant that when my electricity got cut off I knew I could run an extension cord between my house and Eddie’s house so that I could at least have a lamp on and watch television.
Here’s community: one morning Yolanda came running to my house to let me know that the city tow truck was outside getting ready to tow my car for unpaid tickets. I wasn’t dressed yet so I threw her my car keys and she ran out to the street, unlocked the car door, and jumped inside. Cuz see, the tow truck couldn’t tow my car as long as there was somebody in there. And by the time I was dressed and outside Yolanda had argued so strenuously with the tow truck driver that he agreed to leave without my car.
This is poor people looking out for each other. I was often the only one on the block with my phone turned on, so I was the person who made and accepted phone calls for my neighbors. If I heard Mattie and her boyfriend’s argument starting to get out of hand, I could stick my head out the window and let her know I’d call 911 if she needed me to. Often that was enough to get the boyfriend to cool it.
This is a community of poor people who struggle and look out for each other. Lot of times folks don’t understand exactly how that works. You watch the news and you think people in inner cities are too busy shooting guns and smoking crack to actually have friends and family that they love. You think poor means stratified, disconnected, a world of distrust and violence. If you think it’s that simple then you’re wrong.
When my disability got bad enough that for a couple of years I rarely left my house, my neighbors would stop by on their way to the store to see if I needed anything. When I got my scooter and became mobile again, people I hadn’t seen in years cried and kissed me on the cheek and hugged me because they were so pleased for me.
Poor people, y’all. Poor brown and black people living in a city that is famous for violence and racial segregation.
And I have a good friend who grew up in the projects in Chicago, the famous Harold Ickes (the “Ickes) projects, who remembers her childhood with great fondness. Her grandma still lives there to this day. And when the Chicago Housing Authority made plans to demolish the Chicago projects, there was enormous outcry from the residents, even as the wealthy salivated at the prospect of getting their paws on all that prime real estate. I went to protests and community actions trying to keep the projects from being torn down. And what happened to the residents of the projects that were demolished? Gone to the suburbs, cut off from each other, torn apart. Lost to the communities that had sustained them.
Talk about ghettos and slums and the inner city all you want. Let the media lie to you and tell you that poor people and people of color can’t work together, can’t create vibrant life together. Live in ignorance. But I tell you, if all that is true, then why are the scattered, displaced residents of New Orleans so desperate to come home? Why the outcry, the grief, at the loss of the New Orleans public housing?
This is why: because people who are poor need each other. We need each other because we know exactly how it feels to be down to your last $10 and it’s only the middle of the month. We need each other because we speak each other’s language. We need to be around people like us so that we maintain our humanity and our hope.
And poor people have a right to housing. Housing is a human right, like enough food and water and safety from violence. And if the bad men who want to finish the job of destroying New Orleans succeed in tearing it down and rebuilding it in their own image, there is nothing to stop them from doing the same thing in any poor neighborhood in the country.
Housing is a right. I deserve it, and so do you. And so do the people of New Orleans.
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