Living in a Black neighborhood for the first time at age 29

I recently left my charming but slightly dingy duplex in Old West Durham, and moved to a newly renovated duplex that is a little too small but full of modern comforts. I moved because I wanted something slightly cheaper, with central heat, and where I didn’t have to kill roaches and overgrown crickets on a weekly basis. I was ready to leave that house, but I was sad to leave West Durham. Old West Durham is a mixed race, fairly mixed income area, with new development slowly encroaching upon spaces that once held older homes with porches and yards. Some of the folks in West Durham are students, others young professionals, some owners, some renters, nuclear families, extended families. My favorite donut shop was literally 2 blocks away. I walked to Whole Foods when I didn’t have the energy to cook, but did have the energy to spend $20 at the hot bar. There was a gravel trail nearby where I liked to jog, and I often went for walks through the neighborhood at dusk, and I would smile at children riding trikes in the street and admire the summer gardens in bloom.

I miss Old West Durham. I liked living there. I like living in my new neighborhood too, but it is different. It’s a browner side of town. The people, I mean. It has fewer white collar professionals and more working class folks… whatever those respective terms mean.  It is also near a college campus, but this one is a predominantly Black university. There are a lot of people traveling on foot, and waiting for the bus, and there are also plenty of cars. There are funeral homes and corner stores and hair shops. There is also a grocery store within a 5 minute drive, but it is less well stocked than the store of the same name in my old neighborhood. And unlike in my old neighborhood, there is a police officer stationed near the entrance at all hours of the day. My new neighborhood has some gorgeous two story houses with palatial porches supported by columns, abandoned, their windows boarded up with plywood. There is a lot of trash in the empty grass lots where houses have been torn down and nothing yet rebuilt. There are also a lot of children playing. Throwing footballs, skateboarding down steep hills, and I notice that my brain registers this scene differently than it did children in my old neighborhood, a group of Black adolescents in the middle of the street. They are the same color as me, but this is the first time I’ve lived in a neighborhood full of people the same color as me, and my brain needs a *reminder* that these are children, playing outside, as children do.

My neighbors are mostly friendly, cordial. They give me a nod, a wave, a “good morning”, when I walk or drive up the hill and out of the cul de sac on my way to work at the nearby community health center. They are friends with one another. I see them helping each other unload things from someone’s car into their house. I see them lingering on the steps of one another’s porches in the middle of the day when I come home for lunch. On weekends (and sometimes on weekdays), they like to play music. Loudly, on speakers. They set up a red EZ-up tent, and cook out on the grill. I see people coming and going. When I am trying to fall asleep at 10pm on a Friday, it feels a bit annoying. But I push annoyance away, because I also think it would be fun, if I was there with them. And they have good taste in music, so that helps.

I am the same color, but it is obvious that I’m not from here, that I didn’t grow up here, and that I haven’t lived in this area a long time. My bourgie-ness is obvious, and it’s not anything I try to disguise. I have the look and dress of someone with a professional job, someone who has higher education and shops the clearance section of Banana Republic. My neighbors see my close friends when they come over for dinner, and see that they are white. They see me leaving my house on a Saturday morning in running clothes, and get in my car to drive to the nearby greenway. They see me come back from shopping trips at Target, my arms weighted down with bags.

These are not activities that bourgie people, white people, or middle class people have a monopoly on. But they are not things I see my neighbors do. And so when they observe me, they can intuit that I am a person who might feel ill at ease in this neighborhood. And I am a little bit, at moments. Because it is new to me, if only because I am still adjusting to southern behavior. I worry about appearing unfriendly or standoffish or in anyway separatist, so I make a point of seeking eye contact and saying hello. I get a lot of courteous greetings. I also get a lot of street harassment. Men making attempts to yell good morning from halfway down the block. The man who speaks to me from his car, stopped at a red light, me walking on the sidewalk, and asks if I need a ride to wherever I’m going. Men who honk and wave as I approach the health clinic parking lot on foot. My across-the-street neighbor who greets me on a weekend morning with “Good morning, bae.” “Good morning, how are you?” Coyly, he says, “I was thinking about you last night.” My shoulders tense and I twist my face into a scowl. “Well, you don’t need to be doing that.” “Haha, you be safe now.” My car door slams behind me as I duck inside, filled with rage and confusion, berating myself for not having a better, quicker retort. Did he think that was clever or funny? Who the fuck does he think he is? I should have told him to fuck off. No, I shouldn’t have. Maybe he maybe didn’t mean anything by it. And he might live here. And I have to keep living here, and living here would get uncomfortable if I start telling my neighbors to fuck off. I ruminate on this interaction for the next half hour. How DARE he? I have to LIVE here, and you think you can say shit like that to me? When all I’m trying to do is come and go out of my home? I know you wouldn’t say that shit to a white woman, to any woman who wasn’t black. I once talked about how much I was bothered by street harassment with my Black female therapist, and she asked if it was really harmful or of ill intent. As a middle aged woman, she said, if it’s not overtly sexual, I appreciate the compliment. It’s cultural, she said. I had to disagree. I accept your courteous greeting, but I reject any and all unsolicited compliments. I don’t give a fuck if you like what you see or you don’t. I can’t stop you from looking; please do it silently and discreetly so I can live my life in peace.

This is the complexity of sexism layered upon racism, and how hypermasculinity manifests itself in people who are devalued and criminalized everyday of their lives. I try not to keep tallies of whether I get more catcalls from Black men or non-Black men, because the first group usually wins, but I know there are complex histories and analyses behind that. Twistedly, I wish non-Black men would catcall me more so that I wouldn’t have to battle a negative internal bias toward Black men specifically. I wish it was normal for me to see Black teenagers walking in groups down the street on a Friday evening, and that I wasn’t immediately aware of how some folks would read that scene as threatening. I wish the dairy section at the nearest grocery store didn’t smell like spoiled milk. I wish it felt natural for me to say more than “Good morning, how are you?” to my neighbors. I wish I felt more like a part of a “we,” an “us.” I wish I could live my daily life without constant reminders of my internalized racism, and I wish I had started the work of confronting it sooner in my life. I wish I wasn’t experiencing living in a predominantly Black neighborhood for the first time at age 29. … I wish a lot of things.

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2 responses to “Living in a Black neighborhood for the first time at age 29

  1. Thank you for sharing. Really wonderful insights.

  2. Thank you for writing about things I never hear anyone speak about. I would love to be able to put my experiences and feelings into words with the craft and flow that you have.

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