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Race & Community on Portland’s NE 14th Place, Part 2

(Race and Community . . . )

The sense of community in our neigh-borhood has suffered from all of this. There’s a strong feeling of alienation, as if each house were an island in a hostile sea. There is tension between white and black people, and the young and the old. Black families in the neighborhood have connections which go back decades. The older people seem very stable, even the elderly matrons who preside over the local crack house. But the younger people seem less connected to each other, more mobile, less grounded. As an outsider, I can’t understand the pattern, but I can feel something happening.

I have to gather my courage to cross the gap between white and black and interview a neighboring family. The door is answered by a young man, Lamar. He’s twenty-one, with a gentle, innocent face. I learn that the neighborhood is safer for me than for him. He’s not involved with the gangs, but he knows people who are, and that’s enough to make him a target. He’s been attacked on the street, even shot at. “I don’t know why they have Crips and Bloods, to tell the honest truth,” he says. “We all grew up together. We all know each other from school. What’s the point? I don’t understand it.”

“What kinds of hopes or dreams do you have for your life?” I asked him.

“Hard to say, I guess.”

“What do you do?”

“I go to the store, come home again. Not much. I’m out of work right now. I had a job at a warehouse, until they asked me to take a test. I didn’t want them to know I couldn’t read, so I just didn’t come in for it.”

“Why do you think you didn’t learn how to read in school?”

“I don’t know. I worked at it. I guess everyone has their disability, and that’s mine, I just can’t read.”

Of course, Lamar has been luckier than many of his schoolmates, who are scarred by poverty and racism. He’s never been to jail, he has work experience and a good home with his parents. Sitting on their couch, talking and listening, I am struck by the many different moods of this neighborhood, the many ways I feel the racial gap, and I am confronted again by my own racism, and the pervasive racism of the whole neighborhood, the whole country.

The feeling grows in my next inter-view, with a white woman, Jenny. She and her husband bought a house here a few years ago. Now that they’ve fixed it up and the value has increased, they’re selling it to buy the country home they’ve dreamed of. Where Lamar and his family treated me as a special guest, Jenny confides in me. I can’t help but feel a kind of “circling of the wagons”—just us white folks, talking indoors about the dangers outside. I ask her how she feels about the neighborhood.

“I think it bothers my husband more than me,” she answers.

“When I hear the gunshots, I just stay inside, and I’m glad we have bars on the windows. He always wants to know what’s going on, and it keeps him up at night. Like when that guy got shot right out front a few weeks ago, he was up half the night. There was this woman, just wailing, on and on for about half an hour, really loudly. It was terrible to listen to.

“Another thing is the trash. You’ll see kids standing outside here, just talking and dropping their trash on our yard. I’d like to go out there and talk to them, but...”

“It can be scary to confront them.”

“Yes. I mean, they know where I live. Is it worth it?”

While the black community seems to be falling apart in some ways, the sense of community among white people is very slow in growing, and a mixed community remains a fantasy. Although white people have always lived in this neighborhood, few of us who live here now have been here longer than a few years. We’re a little like pioneers, moving into dangerous territory for a chance to realize the American Dream—steeply rising property values. Like pioneers, we are beginning to displace the people who came before us; the racist basis on which this country was built hasn’t changed. Like pioneers, we tend to feel like we’re in dangerous territory, and we’re afraid to talk to our neighbors.

The fear of our own racism keeps white people apart. We spend most of our time ignoring the issue by staying inside our house Talking to each other reminds us of our racism. We need to talk about it, because it’s something we all share, one way or another, but it’s scary to bring it up. The way that we hide from the street; our fear of the gang mem-bers outside; our shock at the killings; our guilt at being privileged, comfortable: we need to talk about them, but we can’t. We would have to talk about racism, and we don’t want to admit to it.

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