Why ‘That’ Part of Town Matters

By: Barbara Yuki Schwartz

You know, “that” part of town. The part of town that’s on the “wrong side of the tracks,” where it’s believed that there are too many broken windows and boarded-up stores, where it’s widely assumed that crime rates are constantly skyrocketing and “immoral” behaviors run rampant. It’s the area of town that those in the “respectable” parts of town would rather forget about, would rather not spend their tax dollars to redeem, would rather build a fence around it so that the nastier elements of “that” part of town doesn’t spill out into the “good” parts of town.

Every town has a “that” part of town. We all know exactly where they are and that we shouldn’t venture over there if we can help it, especially after dark. What we rarely admit are the specific factors that play into our understandings of why those neighborhoods are the way they are: that they are usually nonwhite, that they are usually poor, that they are usually, especially since the era of white flight into the suburbs, the areas that we or our parents avoided or left in order to improve economic and educational opportunities.

These are the areas that we write off.

I recently moved to “that” part of town. I’ve always loved cities and, having grown up in a small rural town, was just enough in love with cities to want to live in one instead of a suburb. Short finances usually led me to live in the inner cities, in “that” part of town because rents were cheaper, and I quickly discovered that while there were some rules that had to be followed for city life, “that” part of town usually was no less safe than other, more “respectable” parts of town. And it caused me to realize that the entire health of a city depends on how healthy all its parts are, that closeting away one section will never lead to quality of life in other parts. Especially in “that” part of town.

The Tulsa Project addresses our attitudes about “that” part of town, specifically North Tulsa, which has had the reputation for being a “scary” place for as long as I’ve known it. Writer Colleen McCarty admonishes those who believe that North Tulsa is a blight north of Admiral, saying that Tulsa can’t be whole without addressing the problems of all its neighborhoods. She writes:

So for whatever reason, Tulsans often have a very negative perception of the north side. We’ve probably all heard some heinous things said; we’ve even heard of people who refuse to go downtown because it’s near North Tulsa. Within a few months of opening, the Gateway Market, a new grocery store at Pine and Peoria, was robbed at gunpoint; a horrible tragedy for any business, not to mention its employees and guests, to endure.

A citizen commented on the Fox 23 story regarding the robbery that “North Tulsa does not deserve to have anything nice until they start taking care of their own neighborhood.” This kind of sentiment is startling, but widespread. Comments on other sites, such as the Tulsa World, echoed the same sentiment: that somehow the store had it coming. Do we, as citizens, as human beings, really believe that anyone deserves to be robbed?

Additionally Gateway Market opened at that particular location to serve a part of the community which hasn’t had a major grocery store for years. This is precisely the kind of perception that only worsens the problem. When someone is shot at 51st and Peoria we don’t say “Better stay away from Midtown!” North Tulsa is constantly chided as dangerous and unsafe, but many places in Tulsa have high crime rates including West Tulsa and East Tulsa.

McCarty points to many great parts of North Tulsa, poking holes in the perception that this area is scary. It’s a neighborhood, people live, grow old and raise families there. And she reminds readers that when it comes to living in community, we need to make sure that all communities count. We need to pay attention to the needs and problems, the joys and concerns of all parts of the city.

Most importantly, it’s up to us as citizens to make our own decisions about our own environments, letting our own experiences help us determine our perceptions, rather than just going by reputation or fear-mongering reporting alone. This involves taking risks — not because you might be visiting an area that you’ve always heard might be dangerous, but because you’ll have to go into areas that might be uncomfortable, that might be strange to you, you’ll have to meet people who might be different. That’s always the biggest risk: taking a chance of making new relationships outside our comfortable circles.

Which parts of your city are “that” part of town? How much do you really know about it? I recently visited the South Side of Chicago, a part of town that I had always heard was scary and crime-ridden. I found an area that was quite different than I was used to that had some things that I might or might not enjoy or be comfortable with. I’ll need more time to figure it out, I think, and to question why I’m comfortable and why I might not be. That’s my challenge to myself.

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