catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


Ain't nothin' noble about it

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my neighborhood

Part I: History

I graduated from college, got married and moved to Chicago. My amazing
wife Amy got a job teaching in Tinley Park, one of the south Chicago
suburbs. I got a job working downtown, so we needed to find a spacious
apartment in a reasonably affluent neighborhood, walking distance from
the train, and a short drive to Amy's school. We were in agreement that
the one place we would not look would be South Holland. Amy had grown
up there and, though it was a nice enough community, it had the stuffy
atmosphere of sameness to it. After four years in a predominantly Dutch
college and childhoods within that community, we were looking for a
community with a bit more variety.

We finally settled on a nice little apartment in Tinley Park. Though
our first rent was stolen out of the lock box in the basement, we found
our apartment mates to be nice enough, if rather quiet and withdrawn.
We found it hard to get to know them, though, and felt like we were
isolated in our apartment block (though soon found community at work
and church). We were living in what my mother would doubtless term a
"good neighborhood," but the problem was that, for us, it didn't seem
to be a neighborhood at all. After a year, we moved.

Our next apartment was still convenient to the train, but a bit
longer drive for Amy. We had found a beautiful Chicago-style house in
Blue Island just off the southern border of the city. One of our
friends from Amy's school lived right across the street. An ice cream
store, grocery store, wonderful bakery and restaurant were within
walking distance. Mr. Perez, next door, told us that he worked the late
shift and always kept an eye on the neighborhood when he got home. In
the summers, we frequently ate dinner on our porch, as did everyone
else. If we would walk up the block, people on their porches would nod
"hi" to us. After a couple of months, we began to talk to them. Blue
Island is a working class neighborhood, and seemed to be divided in
thirds racially between white, black, and Latino. I would go jogging in
the mornings during the late fall when it was still mostly dark, and I
felt perfectly safe. Though my neighbors were not all the same race or
religion as me, it was a community and, though I am not sure that my
mother liked it very much, we loved living there.

Then, Amy's sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Rob, moved into the
area in order to teach at Illiana Christian High School. I was
finishing up grad school and we were thinking of starting a family. Amy
had grown up in a family of six and I had spent the summers of my youth
at a cottage next door to two sets of cousins' cottages, and we were
interested in a similar experience for our children. We talked to Mary
and Rob about buying a house together. They had done so in New Jersey
with one of Amy's other sisters, Michelle, and were intrigued by the
idea, and soon we were house hunting.

It is not an easy thing to find a house with ample living space for
two families, including separate kitchens, all within a price that four
Christian schoolteachers can afford. We looked in Blue Island,
Riverdale, and some other communities to the west, but also felt
compelled to have a look at some towns closer to where Rob and Mary
taught. This led us to examine houses in Lansing, in some Indiana
border towns, and eventually brought us back to South Holland.

South Holland was changing, we were warned. It wasn't the same
community it used to be. The housing boom in the 1960s had led to a lot
of empty-nesters in the nineties and they were selling their houses and
moving into condos, golfing communities, and heading for Florida. Some
of the new buyers were neither Dutch nor white. Coincidentally, a lot
of younger families were deciding it was time to upgrade to a bigger
place, out in the country somewhere, where they could see deer in their
backyard. We drove around a bit. We saw the same cute little houses and
neatly trimmed lawns of Amy's youth, the same well-run city services,
the same beautiful churches, but there was also a greater variety of
people—still a lot of white people, but also some black, Hispanic, and
Asian people—and many of them seemed to be outside talking with each
other. The cars in the driveways were more expensive than Amy
remembered, but the only lawn that wasn't meticulously kept-up belonged
to Amy's parents. When we found an amazing house designed for two
families with common areas, separate areas, and no need for one family
to be consigned to live in the basement, we began seeking a mortgage.
It was true, South Holland was changing, but it seemed to be changing
in a direction that we liked.

Seven years later we have put down roots. We are not living here
because it is a noble thing to do. We are not living here because it is
a sacrifice. This is a good place to raise kids. This is a good place
to experience community. This is a good place to live.

Part II: Q and A, solo performance

Q: But don't you want to move out to the country where you wake up to deer in your backyard?

A: Well, we do have a birdfeeder, so I can wake up to robins, wrens,
woodpeckers, and sometimes even mallard ducks in my backyard. I bike
five miles to school through a forest preserve and often see deer
there. For a more complete wilderness experience, we visit the national
parks from time to time.

Q: But the houses in your community look awfully small.

A: It is true that the size of houses has increased in the last
couple decades, while the size of families has become smaller. My
community, however, has several new housing developments sprouting even
as we speak, so if we did want to bigger house, we could stay in this
community. Actually, though, our current house has plenty of room. We
have enough bedroom space so that every kid could have their own room
(though Hannah and Esther prefer to share) and we have two family
rooms, two living rooms, and two studies besides. Our house is big
enough without being too big, we think.

Q: Come on, be honest, though, don't you worry about property values decreasing as the neighborhood becomes more diverse?

A: Well, although it may be due to a lot of retirees moving out, as
South Holland's diversity increases, so has its median income. In fact,
though, South Holland has an insurance program (which we haven't
elected to participate in, but could) that would pay the difference if
the value of our house actually decreased. So, no, we really aren't
worried about that.

If we were, though, I wouldn't be able to find much solace in moving
further into the suburbs for two reasons. First of all, black and
Hispanic people can live in whatever neighborhood they want. If that is
what gives you the heebie-jeebies, brace yourself, because it is only a
matter of time. Secondly, if you retreat from urban people who are
moving out from a city center for far enough, you are eventually going
to run into a bunch of people expanding outward from another city.

Q: Do you worry about crime, though, as more black teenagers move into the neighborhood?

A: As a Christian I understand that all have sinned and fallen short
of the glory of God. Murder, theft, and drug use occur in white
suburban neighborhoods as well as black ones. Moving out to what some
term a "safe" neighborhood does not really make me safe. In truth,
though, although South Holland's racial demographics have been changing
for the last decade or so, the crime rate has been steadily falling (as
has the national crime rate, despite what the television news implies).

Q: What about kids for your child to play with? Don't you want her to be able to play with some of her own kind?

A: If by that you mean children of God, you bet. My daughter has a
friend across the street who is white, two other friends up the block
who are black, and she also plays with her cousins—Hannah, who is
Asian, and Esther, who is white. We like that. We enjoy that our
neighborhood looks like God's neighborhood.

Q: Yeah, okay, so what do you want us to do, applaud you for being
so noble as to be willing to live in a racially mixed neighborhood?

A: Actually, it isn't so noble. We live here because this is a great
neighborhood, a safe neighborhood, and a friendly neighborhood. We see
our neighbors every day. I wouldn't want to live in a house with such a
big lawn that I would need to get into the car to drive to my nearest
neighbor and borrow a cup of sugar.

Part III: Staying Put

In this fast food, fast track, instant gratification, high speed, high
octane, high powered, high tension, high impact, high stress,
over-scheduled, over-planned, overloaded, super-sized, mega, maxi,
multi, disposable, replaceable, throwaway, on-the-go, franchised,
long-distance, virtual, online, on-target, disconnected, big gulp,
biggie fry, big idea, alternative, option-filled, consumer-oriented,
throwaway, materialist, global, jet-set, movin' on up, keeping up with
the Joneses world, where choice is king and brand-loyalty is the only
loyalty there is, I am staying put.

The world can spin around as fast as it wants, but I am staying put.

Because, yes, there might be a better house somewhere, a house with a
bigger garage or higher ceilings or whatever else. But Christians are
supposed to be different from the rest of the world. Christians are
supposed to understand that life is about God first of all, and other
people second, and earthly mansions fall pretty far down that list
(after domestic pets, but before silly putty, I think). This is my
neighborhood and I like it and I am staying put.

And yes, I could chase after that better house, but I know that when
I find it there will be another better house, and when I find that one,
there will be another better house, and so on and so on and it is all
just chasing after wind anyway. So I am going to learn to be content
right here.

If God calls me somewhere else, I will go, but sometimes God calls us not to go. I think he is calling me to commit to my community and stay put.

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