On putting your money where your mouth is
June 12, 1986
In which I mount the stump to preach. I built a little house on the east side of Springfield, nearly all of whose residents were African Americans. I made the decision as a real estate deal; several governments, in effect, paid me to invest there, which allowed me to own a house I could not otherwise afford. But there was a social dimension to the choice too. I got tired of people assuming it was a liberal striking a pose, so I tried here to explain that things were more complicated than that.
As a business deal, by the way, the house was a bust. I lost money and eventually the house.
Life on my block on Springfield's near east side is a textbook lesson in tolerance. I hadn't really expected my new neighbors to care much that I am white; all of us tend to worry about essential things, such as who doesn’t keep his grass mowed. No, I refer to the fact that in four years I have yet to hear a belittling or angry remark made in my hearing about writers. That is open-minded.
Indeed, life in general on my block is so pleasant—new houses, quiet streets, nice kids, parks and tennis courts nearby, all located ten minutes from downtown and only five minutes from a doughnut shop—that I often wonder why more people haven’t joined us. Money was tight for a while, I know, but with the drop in interest rates even honest people can afford to build houses again.
The city is willing to make deals on lots, and I would happily donate a couple of clumps of day lilies toward the landscaping. What more incentive does a person need?
I am joking, of course. Sadly, I know too well some of the reasons why Springfield’s Pioneer Park redevelopment has grown at a modest pace. Racism is one obvious reason. There are still people in Springfield who would rather live next door to a white writer than a black architect or attorney, and they’re welcome to stay where they can do just that—we don’t want them in our neighborhood anyway.
Other reasons for the reluctance of the middle class to venture into the near east side are less obvious. Less accurate too. There undeniably are lots of black people in my neighborhood, for example. But crime? “I read Police Beat,” a longtime Springfieldian said to me recently. Most locals do. The problem is that they don’t read it very carefully. The crime that usually appears in the press is concentrated in two specific points on the east side (the Hay Homes and near Thirteenth and Jackson) and tends to be intramural. The crimes that people fear most—house break-ins and random street violence—happen more often in the near west and near north sides. I have yet to have a murder on my block, which is something many of the good burghers of Westchester can’t say, and the only vandals I worry about work for the city’s streets and utility departments.
I concede that the cultural preference for curvy streets mitigates against older city neighborhoods organized on the grid system. So does pretension; a culture whose members are not embarrassed to receive mail at a place called Volare Lane is not one which will prize an address on Fourteenth Street. And of course there is the tribal instinct. People want to live near people who are like they are, or who at least think and act like they do. (Anne Quindlen in the New York Times imagined the idyllic life she and her husband and child might enjoy in the suburbs, where the streets were safe and the kids grow up playing with kids just like they are. “That’s the problem,” she said.) Americans are actually fearful of diversity. That fear is often social, not physical; many whites have trouble understanding informal black speech and are embarrassed by it. Whatever the cause, they take refuge from it behind the bulwark of bourgeois conformity.
If imitation is indeed the sheerest form of flattery, then many of the praises sung by my many guests over the years have been hollow indeed. Of the thousands of my demographic equals—white but not wealthy, childless, relatively educated, unfettered, beginning to nest— not one has built or bought in my neighborhood.
Among the likeliest prospects for that are white social liberals. They are open-minded about race and enlightened about crime. They extol a life which exposes themselves and their children to other cultures, support integrated public schools on principle, and tend to be culturally more oriented to cities than to suburbs. Yet of all the people investing in my east side neighborhood, white liberals are conspicuous by their absence. It is a rude question but inescapable: How can one endorse a way of life in which races and classes mix but do nothing to bring it about except talk?
Part of the answer is ordinary human failing: It is cheaper to overpay the black cleaning woman than to risk $60,000 in a changing neighborhood (even if the act of buying it changes it for the better). Part of it is political, and less forgivable. Liberals tend to expect the millennium to be achieved by state compulsion, a sort of brotherhood by force of statute.
I think sometimes of my age-mates, the children of Cherry Hills and Sherwood and Leland Grove who grew up and who now appraise the real estate and make the money and run the banks and own the construction firms and draw up the deeds for Springfield and do it all in such a way as to perpetuate its racist (more accurately, classist) housing patterns. Like me, they grew up listening to black popular music and aping black speech and worshipping black sports heroes and reading black writers; a few even marched for civil rights. I see now that the sons and daughters of the white bourgeoisie were committed to pluralism to the extent their parents were not. It was just another way for them to assert their independence of parental mores, like wearing short skirts or reading books.
I do not mean to suggest life in my neighborhood as an alternative to the purchase of a sustaining membership in the NAACP. I repeat that it is a nice place, an interesting place to live. I did not build where I did to confirm my open-mindedness or as a gesture of brotherhood (unless it was to the brotherhood of mutual self-interest). Because of the way I make my living, I have more in common economically with many of my neighbors than I do with many of my friends. Any pride I take in my house comes from a sense of having accomplished something in spite of the rules. I wanted what my neighbors wanted, which was a chance to build a house which they might not otherwise ever get.
At the same time, my choice was partly a gesture of defiance intended to show that not every man in this miserable town measures his life by his bank account. Better to suffer the anxieties of the poor, I averred, than the smugness of the comfortable.
Vanity, I know. I have winced when people praise me for my “courage” as an urban pioneer because I know how little courage had to do with it. But vanity is as poor a reason to refrain from action as it is to undertake it. I was struck by the relevance of a passage from Burger’s Daughter, the novel by the South African, Nadine Gordimer. A liberal Afrikaaner is talking, and while Gordimer clearly meant to mock him for his hypocrisy, her mockery had weight to the extent his professed convictions were worth honoring. Policy, he had said, must be supported on a human scale. If one believes in an idea, then one “must take on the job of personal, practical, daily responsibility for its interpretation and furtherance.”
Profession without responsibility is a fair description of our domestic politics, I thought, putting down the book. Montaigne does not often appear on the agendas of real estate seminars, so I will pass on a few words from his “On Vanity.” “The corruption of the age,” the Frenchman wrote, “is produced by the individual contribution of each of us; some contribute treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice, cruelty, in accordance with their greater power; the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity, idleness.”
Something John Garvey wrote in Commonweal a few months ago spoke to these same points. “I have such wonderful resolves, lots of good intentions,” he admitted. “My mistake is that they form so large a part of my conscious life that I could wind up thinking they offer a serious clue to my being, rather than a clue to what I want to be.” It is a deception which self-conscious baby-boomers are especially prey to.
We must not mistake the intention for the deed, in ourselves or others, because it is deeds that make the world. “In a time when it is so common to do evil,” friend Montaigne wrote, “it is practically praiseworthy to do what is merely useless.” ●