Pontificat


The more time I spend living in DC, the more I realize how great the chasms between abstract liberal class-consciousness and actual practical realities of living in DC are.

Case in point: I was just setting out at around 8:30 pm last night when I heard a succession of gunshots, or “fireworks,” as a roommate likes to call them. Police cars–four of them–flashed through the streets around my home within a couple of minutes. I then carried on to the 9:30 club, watched the Scottish folk-rock band I had gone to see, and chatted with a friend about music venues in Los Angeles. From the laptop screen to the office to the music club, modern urban living allows one to be hyper-conscious yet remarkably oblivious to the plight of his neighborhood, to taking in knowledge on one’s own terms, and through one’s own RSS feeds/labor.

Living in Shaw, I’ve become used to living with many things that would have seemed almost unimaginable in former locales. Homelessness, increased noise, steady traffic along Rhode Island and down 7th, and, almost without question, some sort of police presence. I can’t say I was completely prepared for the adjustment; my move into the city was driven primarily by a desire to escape what I felt to be the alienation and plastic-tasting cultural dirge of the suburbs than it was a desire to bathe in youthful class guilt. But since moving in, over the months and more often through word of mouth or the blogosphere (which is just virtualized word of mouth), I’ve absorbed several valuable life lessons and ideas that neither the lectern nor the text book could provide nearly as well:

1. Every incoming publicly elected official should be required to spend some time in the poorest district of their constituency: Ideally, this would involve living in the neighborhood for at least one month, visiting community centers, talking to folks outside 7-Eleven on Sunday afternoons…

2. No, you don’t know what it feels like to be somebody else, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to understand, more than your ignorant “If only Blue people acted more like Purple people,” or “Those people are all lazy, self-victimizing so-and-so” commentators ever will from their dinner table.

3. People won’t think better of you, no matter how fully you live out a pseudo-Buddhist, one-world worldview: this probably goes as well for developing world back-packing as it does for your own block. Class resentment exists, culture matters, and it takes a long time go from toleration to harmonious co-existence.

4. Hope is the piston of the American Dream: the journey won’t kick into gear without solid factory work to begin with.

I wish more successful folks in the business community saw the dream within a broader brush stroke than that commonly associated with Wall Street culture. “Greed is good” is so passé. All that capital, all that ability, still being thrown about like raccoons in a winter pantry. What makes humanity so thoroughly compelling is our ability to fulfill higher modes of living: beyond the television, beyond wanting a snazzier car than Jim, always a little beyond our current comfort zone.

“Greed is good; social capitalism is better,” should be our generation’s call card. Just like an online personals profile, except regarding civic consciousness.

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When I first moved to this country six years ago, in the Summer of 2000, my first American friends were made, naturally enough, through the basketball court. They lived across the road, in some of Howard County’s rare government housing, a self-suspended example of Columbia’s largely unsuccessful attempt at planned Black/White cohabitation.

These boys wore long denim shorts, spoke in loud, brash jibes, and soon began referring to me as “Australia.” Standing under that pounding Maryland sun, I loved the exoticism of it all: playing ‘pick-up games’ that I had previously only read about in SLAM, wearing my teal and black Air Jordans, mixing with a group of street-savvy African-American teens.

My mother was not so thrilled. When she eventually observed the rather unkempt appearance and casual manners of my new acquaintances, she attempted to steer me clear of them.

“MUM, YOU’RE SUCH A RACIST!,” I remarked, jubilant in my teenage self-righteousness. She wasn’t sure quite how to react to the unexpected and rapid politicization of her son.

Unable to conscionably banish me from the court, the organic pull of my parents’ intentions eventually worked their desired effect. Following several residential step-ups, attendance at a competitive, largely Caucasian high school and consequent completion of a B.A. degree, I now find myself entering into a position at a comfortable non-profit working in international development. I now also find myself—not without a shade of socio-economic irony–in a similar situation to that six summers ago.

Two weeks ago, I moved into the neighborhood of Shaw in Washington, D.C. Where earlier a matter of geographical happenstance led me to my initial b-balling partners, on this occasion a desire for affordable housing and ‘suburban flight’ has drawn me to this gradually gentrifying borough, where police sirens pepper the evening chatter and daylight muggings recur like sweat lines down a white cotton blouse.

Upon first sighting, my parents’ response toward my new digs was muted at best.

“It’s not too bad,” I told them, as they drove away towards the sleepy refuge of SUV-urbia. And it really hasn’t been.

But now I have the opportunity to do more than trade cross-over dribbles. I’m enthusiastic at the opportunity to explore my de facto status as unclassifiable ‘floater,’ to drift across lines of class and race. As the boundaries blur, I feel compelled to do more than yuppify in oblivion, and hoping rather to engage with my new community and deconstruct false dichotomies, all whilst working towards a practical theory of pro-poor gentrification.

Welcome.