Poor Neighbourhoods

Since about 2006, when I moved back to Sarnia, and having read just enough Claiborne to be naive, I have always intentionally moved into the poorest and roughest area that I could find in Sarnia. It was the whole ‘moving into abandoned places of the empire’ kind of methodology. This isn’t saying much for a smaller Canadian city, but it was something that was important for me as one of the few things that I could do to live out my faith practically. I first moved into a strip of town houses on Indian Rd that was a well known dwelling for drug deals and cheap housing, then when Rachel and I got married we moved into an apartment at Queen and Devine, one of the more recognized rougher corners of Sarnia. After a year there where we moved up two blocks and lived across the street from one of two food banks in Sarnia and then about 4 years after that we moved to our current home at College and Davis, which has even more life than the first three places.

Most folks in Sarnia instantly frown upon the idea of the ‘south end’ and would never intentionally move here. The south end isn’t really where you go if you don’t have to. We have a large drug problem, we have quite an active methadone clinic, the apartment buildings and quadplexes are plentiful and rarely is there a manicured lawn. Daily you overhear domestic disputes in the streets, the kids are out at all hours of the night and it’s not uncommon to have someone tripping out walking down the sidewalk. These kinds of situations strike fear into the hearts of most middle class folks. They might be able to tolerate it themselves, but there is no way they will raise their kids in this kind of neighbourhood.

I say this because in the last month or so, I’ve been in four different conversations where this exact sentiment was shared. “Living here was fine for just us, but this is no place to raise kids.”

Sunday night we threw a block party for all the neighbours. We own a plot of land across the street from the house that used to be a parking lot, so we had it there. Had around 100 or so folks come out for a campfire, lawn games, music, drinks and most of them brought food to share at the potluck. Many kids came out. They love the ducks and chickens that we have over there. The night was excellent. All types showed up. The grateful folks who actually wrote cards of thanks a few days later and the folks who just heard about the free beer. Kids ran around with sparklers. The neighbours who almost broke out into a fist fight the day before were happily in conversation around the campfire. A guy who is running for city council and his posse showed up and kept whispering in my ear that they were going to give me some money to help cover the costs. It was a remarkable night.

It’s been eight years since moving back to Sarnia before I actually made an intentional move to run a block party. Something I’ve said every year I would do but never got around to doing. I’m far from the role model that I want to be when it comes to loving my neighbourhood. This isn’t a ‘look what I’m doing’ kind of rant, it’s more of a ‘why do we suck so bad’ kind.

I start to feel a sadness when talking about neighbourhoods like this. It’s sad when people want to leave because they don’t want to raise their kids here. Is that the future of poor neighbourhoods? They are fine for us but not fine for our kids? Some of the folks here have lived in this neighbourhood for 30+ years. These are the ones that are thanking us for making the neighbourhood a better place, caring about it and caring about the people here. But why isn’t this just normal? Why have many people (especially us middle class folks) lost the imagination to go to a place and work towards its improvement rather than flee to some place that is ‘better.’ Maybe it’s because we are consumers now, and if we don’t like something we just throw it out and go buy something new. Is this what we do with neighbourhoods too?

The folks that live around me here are beautiful people. They deserve more than the stigma that comes with the neighbourhood they live in. For whatever reason though, poor people just strike a fear into everyone else. Garbage collectors, flea market folks, the one’s that never leave their porch, the people that limp or yell or cry, arguers on the streets – and all others that would be described as ‘sketchy’ create such a fear in people that we default to protecting ourselves rather than embracing the difference.

I mourn the state of the middle class. Our values speak loud and clear. We prefer safety. We prefer the illusion of togetherness. We prefer quiet. We prefer ourselves. We prefer to have our kids indoctrinated by those things as well so that they are just like us.

It’s funny, because who knows where I’ll be in ten years. Maybe I’ll have moved onto Lakeshore to get my kids into a better school so they have better opportunities in sports and school. Maybe I’m just a few years behind yet because kids aren’t part of my life yet. But then what will that mean? I’m middle class like so many others. We are choosing to live here. Rachel and I make plenty of money, we don’t have to live here, we could flee to the middle class world very quickly. Will I keep choosing this? But there is something that is holding onto me here, something that I feel like I would miss out on quite a bit if I was ever to leave. I don’t want to. I want my kids to have friends that aren’t just like them. I want my kids to recognize and embrace difference in the other, not learn to protect themselves from it.

So I don’t know. Poor neighbourhoods. It’s obvious why they are poor. No one with money stays. No one with an education stays. No one that can leave stays. What do you do? Probably the only Christian response to a problem like this I guess is to stay.

12 Comments

  • Wow No wonder I love ya man….. Great talk and I’m not surprised a bit ,your actions and ways have always impressed me.cheers mate .You are a leader.mate

  • as a life long south ender thankyou…….Salt

  • Well written article Nathan… You can write well. As a person who can write, I love reading the writings of people who use the style of creating the questions and using the painted word pictures to control and open the mind. Get out of the box and search your hearts with open eyes is your message. John Eldredge is a master and he enthrones the style to perfection. People need to look in the mirror and judge not from their locked in self righteous, “I’ve got it together” and “they don’t” attitude. Thanks for writing this buddy. I am blessed by your tenacity and wisdom. You are the kind of person that never stops because idealistically you seek perfection in yourself as a perfect Christian and you will always be your own worst critic. I know, I have been there and sometimes it’s frustrating. Keep sharing your inner wealth with others. Christ is molding you and me with every breath we take and every encounter we have in life. You are a good man Nathan. God bless you.

  • I say this as someone who has recently moved … some of the worst places we can raise our children, are the so called privleged school systems of the West. The kinds of hyper-competitive demeaning-towards-the-lesser-ones attitudes engendered there destroy the capability to live life meaningfully whether you are a Christian or not. The levels of teenage chronic depression/suicide are as high if not higher in the schools of the rich. We deliberately chose the more diverse socio-economically and ethnically neighborhood of the ones within the realm of possibility.

  • This! This is exactly how I feel!!
    So well written and worth sharing. There is an important message here to ponder as well. Thank you, for this reminder of the kindness and the reality of poor neighborhoods. I have also for the majority of my adult life lived in the south end, and now as a parent, my husband and live in the south end with our two children.

  • I’ve lived on College Ave. S. for almost 20 years. I love the downtown area and the people. I’m educated and could have left years ago… I love watching the slow and steady gentrification of our neighborhood and the downtown.

    The “north” has all the problems we do here in the “south”. They have the addicts but chances are they can afford to stay out of sight. They have crime and they have the politician hobnobbing with them also (with all their promises and whispering in ears in hopes of getting your vote).

    The thought of people thinking that living in South Sarnia automatically determines your status in society and you should be treated any different from an affluent person on ,say lakeshore, because of a stereotype really is a sad state in the mindset of people.

    I choose to live in the downtown area “because” of the people. They are real, they care and they all have dreams.

    The revolution has already started!

  • Nathan,

    Great thoughts. I can’t say I live in a poorer area, but do live in a modest area (though not the townhome/apartment zone like you).

    I’m challenged by: stay to make it better, or leave for something better.

    One thing that comes to mind is that you are choosing to stay there vs. some who’ve never had a choice b/c it’s been generational. I respect and applaud your choice. So often someone in that situation chooses to leave when they finally have the choice.

    We see this in QC with the school system. My wife and I didn’t have to send our kids to french school but we did (elementary) b/c it was – fully french and more diverse – but some who don’t have the choice are sometimes dying to get out.

    just thinking aloud :)

  • Thanks Nathan,

    I grew up in that exact hood. It was a great place to grow up (even if we at Johnson always talked about the “rumble with Devine” next week – which never ever happened). I’m glad you’re there and realize it really teaches you a lot about life and love.

    Keep reppin in Sarnia, and I’ll do the same here having moved up to a more dangerous hood in Toronto.

    Hold it down and lift it up,
    cyr

  • I live here too, but I grew up due north among tall trees and rambling hills and ponds. I went to private school and was so well insulated from poverty that I knew nothing about the geographical poles that mark our city. North/south meant nothing to me. In the time since I have lived in the north I have become familiar with the warts and wrinkles of that area. In comparing the two a person could say 6 of one half dozen of another. If your goal is improve your hood there is plenty to be done no matter which end of town you call home.
    Not gonna lie though. I’m a sucker for curb appeal…neatly coiffed lawns. Bedding plants. Hollering across the road to my neighbour who sits perennially on his porch, and the street wide water fights. Good times here in the deep south.

  • Thanks for this post. We live about as far north in Sarnia as you can go and still be considered ‘south end’. We bought a big fixer-upper and made the choice to move our kids from Christian school into the public school down the road. It’s amazing to me the number of people who with the same breath admire my big, presumably expensive house, and then go on to tell me not to send my kids to the school down the street because it’s in a sketchy neighbourhood. Um, hello? It’s my neighbourhood. I know several families with kids who are making the move downtown. I feel like you do, the ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods just get sketchier if people stop caring about the people who live there. And the truth is, there are sketchy neighbours in the north end of Sarnia too, so why not have a cheaper house with some character? ;)

  • Hi Nathan;
    I loved the optimistic tone of your article. I lived near Brock and Devine for several years in the 60’s and early 70’s but have been in BC for the past 35 years. I regularly check out the local Sarnia news and visit the websites from some of my old schools including Devine St School which, I understand, is now closed. One time, I saw a film project posted on that site by some students. It was a good film and I felt compelled to comment positively which I did. I received a reply from the teacher in charge of the project who referred to the “disadvantaged kids of the impoverished inner city.” I was shocked to hear my old ‘hood referred to in this manner. I have since sensed this feeling in subsequent writings and news reports from Sarnia. You have proven that community and goodness can still exist despite what outsiders might project upon a certain neighbourhood. Thank you!

  • Hi, liked your post. 23 years ago we moved into town from down river to Kathleen , our friends were not pleased. We should have been the other side of the 402. We have enjoyed our neighbours and most are the same, some move away but most are long term. When the kids were small we had about 40 kids on just our block. Sunday afternoon street hockey with kids and Dads, art parties on porches or under big trees! We all would walk down for fireworks or Santa parade. The kids went to Johnson and SCITS and always came home for lunch and brought friends! Now some have moved back and bought the family home and are raising their kids on the same street. Your neighbourhood is what you put and give into it. We have some newer neighbours who won’t speak even as you try, so it’s their loss and contribution to making it friendly . All ours kids have gone to college, have homes and jobs, what’s wrong with that.

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