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.