Something tragic happened to the old black neighborhoods where I grew up in the 60’s. In those days, most of the businesses up and down 31st and 35th Streets, from King Dr. (South Park) to Michigan were owned by our neighbors. There was a drycleaner and a hardware store, both owned by the parents of kids I went to school with. The Griffins owned the funeral home on 33rd Street.
On warm summer mornings, we’d sit on the stomp in front of our house and watch the watermelon man go by on his horsedrawn wagon, the horse dropping huge dollops of “stuff” as it wobbled slowly past the houses. The watermelon man would sing out his prices and about how sweet his melons were. Girls jumped double dutch, knotted rope or twine into pop bottles and combed “doll” hair. Boys rode their bikes up to the local schoolyard to play basketball.
We never worried about being shot or even getting beat up unless we’d done something to warrant it. The neighborhood bully could be put in check as quickly as it took me to get to an adult’s porch to tell on him. In the evening, we’d all go in to take our baths or get washed up and change into our “clean clothes”. Girls would get their hair combed, and we’d put vaseline or Jergens Lotion on our legs and arms. Then we’d sit outside on the porch with our families to catch a breeze before we went off to find our friends.
Teachers, preachers, mailmen, bus drivers, janitors, factory workers, and politicians all lived in the same neighborhood, many of us in the same apartment building, and children saw a variety of lifestyles fueled by a variety of economics. We could choose the lifestyle we wanted to aspire to.
Childhood friendships knew no economic bounds. Thus, kids received the mentoring and knowledge of dentists, funeral directors, and old streetwise philosophers, alike.
As minorities became more educated and liberated, they moved out of the community and only returned for church or to visit with parents who had opted to stay behind. Many businesses went south or to Hyde Park, or Pill Hill with the professionals and left vacant storefronts behind. On Sundays, we’d drive to the “suburbs” to look at the single family houses in Pill Hill.
Over the years children of families who couldn’t move to “better neighborhoods” neither saw nor interacted with professional role models as they were growing up. This exodus, some say, may have been the beginning of the breakdown in the urban community. Still our parents instilled in us the will to achieve. My parents stressed college and talked about their desire for us to accomplish more than they had.
The violence that’s taking place today is a far cry from what I experienced. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that almost all of my friends had fathers who lived with them and were the heads of their homes. Mothers stayed home and raised us kids. We didn’t even know that we were poor because we had love and the highest of expectations. Maybe we were a product of post-civil rights and we couldn’t let down the race!
What was it like where you grew up? If you could change something or add something to today’s urban neighborhoods, what would it be?