Last week I talked city with the mayor. This time I reel it in to address our neighborhoods.
The unit we call our neighborhood is changing. I’m trying to figure out how; and I’m following my gut by taking the first steps toward an idea I’ve had since arriving here last summer.
After getting back from living in China, I settled into one of the many nice old homes in the Central neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The location is convenient, the homes are cozy, and the neighborhood is…well, let’s just say it’s gotten a lot better over the last ten years. This is according to my neighbors.
Some of the first things I noticed after moving in was the graffiti. Little gang wannabes, I believe, but you never know. Another thing I recognized, having just come back from living in China, was that I retained my minority status. The majority of residents living around my home are a combination of Hispanic, Black, and smaller populations of Asian, Somali, and Native American folks.
I think it’s pretty cool, myself.
It’s an interesting place for me—not just as someone who takes interest in other cultures and languages, but as someone studying and writing about the effects of the ever-changing dynamics in our cities and neighborhoods. Specifically, I’ve addressed how our communities are evolving in an age when your neighbors aren’t as vital to your social needs as they once were. And in my own backyard, the idea of a tightly knit neighborhood seems an even greater intrigue given the rainbow of people here—and with them their language, cultural, and behavioral divisions.
It was precisely this diversity, though, that inspired me to bring everyone together.
Just days after moving in, I was returning from a walk one afternoon when I encountered an older Vietnamese woman sun-drying herbs on the street curb in front of her house. We were talking food for a few moments when a Somali man approached and offered some of his own words to us about Somali cuisine. Then a couple days later, I had a conversation with a Native American woman who also lives nearby, and she talked a bit about the foods she specializes in.
“Boy”, I thought, “just like first Thanksgiving brought two peoples together, so could a food festival bring together all the people right here in Central.” I then considered the Hispanics and African Americans with their eats, and imagined a gathering of people representing most every continent, folks venturing around to try others’ foods and getting to know their neighbors while at it.
I know; it’s pie in the sky stuff, and heck, maybe the words from my previous article about multiculturalism decreasing social interaction will manifest and sabotage the success of such an event. But I took a first step and appeared at a recent neighborhood meeting with the faith that ideas ought to be acted upon.
It was your typical community gathering: metal folding chairs, coffee, and a sign-in desk in this “classroom” within this former school-turned-community center. Two tables for Somali and Spanish translation were set up, however none came to take advantage. About 40 other people showed up, though—most white, but also several Blacks and a couple Hispanics. They were talking budget tonight—dry stuff to be sure but telling just the same.
They were deciding how to spend a chunk of money. Sounds like fun, right?
Surveys had previously gone out to the residents to determine community opinions. One white bilingual man stood and stated his difficulties getting Hispanics to participate in taking the survey. A Hispanic woman responded that the Hispanic community does want to participate but may not feel comfortable when they aren’t sure what is going on. A black man rose and felt the survey didn’t represent the actual demographic breakdown of the 8,200 residents in Central neighborhood.
It’s tricky to bring people together, and our differences can sometimes be a real roadblock in this effort. We like to stick with what and who we know. I can imagine the challenge for most immigrants. They come from the surroundings of their own homogenous communities and into the mixing pot of this neighborhood. They, naturally, like to create pockets of comfort, social groups with like-kind to speak, celebrate, and worship with.
But the people speaking up at the meeting all had the courage to put aside, or at least face, the differences and advocate for a better place to live. A neighborhood may not be as tight as they once were, but these folks realize that this most intimate of factors ties them together: the place they call home.
That’s the polarizing truth to a mixed neighborhood like mine. It provides such an observatory for simultaneous segregation and integration. It provides to each person living here, a chance to appreciate those with whom you share commonalities and at the same time, those which offer you something new. And it provides a unique chance to discover how we can define the dynamics of a modern neighborhood.
I’m hoping more can see that our differences are precisely why we ought to interact. On one hand, it brings us back to the idea for the neighborhood food festival. It’s fascinating to learn about another culture, and it’s fun to try new things—language, food, fashion. But on the other, more serious hand, when we don’t communicate and understand each other we make assumptions, judgments, have suspicions. The potential for blame and resentment grows towards, and empathy doesn’t exist, for those outside your group. It’s easier to look divisively, even angrily, towards them.
Cohesion in a diverse neighborhood isn’t just fun and interesting; it’s vital.
I asked last week how the city compels residents to want to participate in the community. Here I’ll ask: how does the neighborhood reach out and create a comfortable, social environment for them to participate in? Perhaps the coaxing of a food festival will do the trick.
Though I didn’t have much to add to the conversation about the funding, it being my first meeting and introduction to the topic, I did meet other members of the organization about jumping on board with some committee work. I look forward to getting involved, and hopefully, see my idea of good food and great company come to fruition.
to new plateaus,