27 August 2010

Lying to Myself About the Inner-City

Sometimes I catch myself lying...to myself. There are days when I believe that my neighborhood in inner-city San Antonio is on the verge of some revolutionary renewal. I tell myself that I am part of some redemptive gentrification of the long-abandoned inner-city.

And then, every so often, I allow myself to drive down a street in my neighborhood with the perspective of an outsider. With this perspective, I almost always am taken aback by how uninviting some of the streets in our area are.

With this perspective, I am thrust back into the reality that our area has either been slowly improving or degrading over the various seasons that mark its hundred year existence. And I am forced to admit that neither my presence nor my good intentions will markedly change whether the area finds itself gentrifying during my season here with it.

For instance, it is never a good sign when the chain link fence is in the FRONT yard. There are, however, plenty of those around here for sure. There may be none on my block, but a block up and a block over they become quite prevalent. Not exactly the sign of yuppie coup.

It is also not a good sign for urban renewal when the number of sit-down restaurants in the area is dwarfed by the number of check-cashing establishments and convenience stores. There are actually a few restaurants. They are mostly tacquerias. OK, they are all tacquerias since the pizza place closed. Of course, the number of shaved iced stands is on the rise, so that counts for something, right?

It is surely not a great sign when the typical suburban annoyance of the police (a force to avoid) becomes a genuine thankfulness for the police. (a force to utilize). This is the shift that happens when we go from trying to avoid being the “victim” of a speed trap or school-zone to being glad that a police presence might help keep us from being “victimized” from area gangs and thieves.

It is what it is and neither the statistics nor the waking reality will lie. Crime is high. Schools are poor. People ride mass transit by necessity. Sirens wail. Helicopters hover. People walk. Occasional gunshots ring out.

In fact, once I start thinking about it, much of my neighborhood bucks the prevailing notion of a gentrifying yuppie-ville. The most typical homeowner is seemingly still a non-white working family or retiree. Not exactly the young, white-collar professionals that mark the up and coming hoods around the US.

Beyond that, I am starting to realize that I just get used to our surroundings. I get used to the homeless and beggars, the trash and graffiti, the stray dogs and strained people. It isn’t until I visit some nice new house in the suburbs that I realize just how gritty our neighborhood might actually be.

My perspective is reoriented and I am again reminded that the boarded up buildings, empty storefronts, and huddled masses don’t exactly indicate thriving prosperity.
And yet I especially like coming home on those days when I've been out on the idyllic hinterlands. I like being reminded of the unique situation we choose to live in and of the lifestyle we choose to forego.

I like the sound of the train horn blowing as it rumbles through the city in the middle of the night. I like the orange glow of the sky from the city lights. I like walking to get breakfast tacos in the morning. I like the density of small lots and tightly gridded streets. I like the workers walking home from transit stops and the way that the night never really quiets completely. I like the echoes of live music on the weekends, blues riffs and tejano beats soaking the air. I like that my child is unfazed by people of many colors and backgrounds. I like that she talks and smiles as willingly with the homeless man at the bus stop as she does with the grandmother in the grocery store.

I like the inner-city. Whether it is gentrifying or not.

03 August 2010

What Do We Do With That?

I sat down with a friend recently for lunch. He is a good man. He has three smallish children and a beautiful wife. He loves God with all of his heart and has an almost foreboding passion that simmers just under the surface of who he is, a reckless desire to live out his beliefs for the glory of God.

He told me of an encounter he had with a beggar, a woman who was obviously on hard times but was also a little too good at the panhandling game. Her "skill" at the pity-pitch was just enough to allow my friend to wonder about what exactly she would buy with his loose change...and therefore just enough that he chose not to give her any.

He seemed conflicted. Sad. His young son was with him and he lamented the loss of a moment to teach, an opportunity to show his boy in practice what the grace of God might really look like. And yet he was still wrestling with what wisdom looks like when there is a high chance that we, the compassionate, are just feeding someone's addiction or prolonging their stay on the streets.

What to do?

1. Rally the family for a 5 minute lesson on homelessness. Explain to kids that some people don't have homes, etc...

2. Take family on mission to grocery store to buy "homeless relief kit" supplies. Brown paper bags, non-perishable food, gum/candy, bottles of water, socks, underwear...

3. Head home and lay stuff out. Then begin packing the bags with supplies.

4. Put a few bags in each car and deputize the kiddos to be on the lookout for folks who might need a helping hand.

5. When approaching a stoplight with a panhandler, simply roll down that window and change someone's day with a little bit of hope and the love of Jesus (in the form of clean undies and a bag of Doritos)...

6. Enjoy watching kids find joy in helping the least of these.