Loving Thy Neighborhood

By Lise Funderburg

The Nation
December 14, 1998

At 39, I’m finally learning how to Double Dutch. My patient instructors are LaPorcha and Toria, two 14-year-olds who live around the corner and are clearly amused by my I bumbling. Into each life some rain must fall, and for me, in addition to being a melanin-challenged mixed-race person (“You’re kidding…your father’s really black?”), I had never learned how to jump rope this way: with two cords turning inward simultaneously, one a half-revolution behind the other. Too many half-and-halfers around my old neighborhood, I suppose, and not enough with black mothers to pass down the skills.

When I actually do jump, slap my feet down a dozen times before I miss the beat and tangle my sneakers in the plastic-coated clothesline, I am thrilled. I know, for the first time, what Veronica Chambers meant when she described Double Dutch in Mama’s Girl, her memoir about growing up in Brooklyn: “There is a space,” she wrote, “between the concrete and heaven where the air is sweeter and your heart beats faster.” The air is sweet. My pulse does quicken.

Double Dutch deficits aside, the West Philadelphia neighborhood where I grew up did have its advantages: One, in particular, was that it defied our nation’s deeply entrenched pattern of residential racial isolation. Powelton Village was an unusually diverse community, mixing race, religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, neighbors actually borrowed cups of sugar, scolded and protect-ed each other’s children and shared resources of food, love and automobiles across demographic lines.

More than a few car bumpers in Powelton brandished the same sticker: “Heaven is a mixed neighborhood.” In a nontheological sense, Powelton was heaven for me: myriad children to play with, many from racially mixed families like my own. In my child-hood universe, there were gay couples, single parents, marrieds and unmarrieds.

I didn’t see this precious heterogeneity at the time, of course. It was simply my reality. And it wasn’t until decades after I’d left Powelton’s protective confines that I realized the rest of the world largely shunted itself off into balkanized, homogeneous subgroups, places where difference is considered disruptive (if not threatening) and community involvement is a luxury at best, an intrusion at worst. Indeed, neighborhoods like Powelton, where the mix is physical and embedded in an enduring web of social relations—not merely ephemeral, consisting of single frames in the reel of gentrification or white flight—are rare.


Thirty years after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, making nondiscriminatory housing a national objective, racially integrated communities are still surprisingly scarce. And no wonder. Whites still receive mortgage approvals at twice the rate of blacks, and the division of wealth among the races in this country is still separate and unequal overall. According to a recent Gallup poll, whites are significantly less inclined than blacks to perceive that blacks are treated “less fairly”—on the job, on public transportation, in shops, by police, in restaurants. Differing perceptions reflect differing realities, and those realities have to do with the life chances and economic opportunities embedded in where Americans of different races get to make their homes [see Douglas Massey and Mary Fischer, opposite]. Because the experience of neighboring, or its absence, occurs at the center of American daily life, it is of real consequence that vast numbers of Americans continue to live in racial isolation.

It would be foolish to suggest that there is any one way to attack racism in this country, yet the tortoiselike approach of neighboring is often overlooked in favor of more swift-footed, glamorous initiatives. Certainly, each frontier of integration— work, education, arts, religion, government, home—offers its own opportunities and challenges. But barrier-free mixing at the level of where we live acts as a taproot for most other integration efforts. We develop our senses of self and relationship in the context of that primary community, which goes on to inform the racial consciousness we export to the larger world: How we choose whom we hire and fire, shirk from hi a lonely elevator, watch the game with, send our children to school with, borrow from, lend to, confide in, love, trust.

Neighboring is the keystone of all social relations, and home, ideally, offers us the freedom to be unmasked and untrammeled. At the most intimate levels, we can be ourselves and come to know our neighbors similarly. Prima facie, residential integration is the path to a racism-free world. Nice theory, right? But if you construct that Utopian community, with equal access to housing, comparable incomes, educations and professions, and still some people feel that they’re on display or separated by unbridgeable gaps of experience and values, then maybe the problem is larger than even the most well-intentioned integrationist will admit. Maybe the concept of universal residential integration is an oxymoron. Maybe it just won’t work for everyone.

“I feel like a zoo animal,” says Lyne Bowens, a black, Emmy-winning news producer whose profession makes her no stranger to navigating white-majority environments. Here, she’s talking about two life experiences: first, having gone through the “uplifting” educational program A Better Chance, which landed her in nearly all-white schools throughout childhood. More currently, though, she’s talking about where she lives with her two adolescent sons, in the only black household on a street full of whites. Ironically, she lives in Montclair, a town in northern New Jersey that is widely touted for being integrated. But Bowens bought her house in winter, and it wasn’t until warm weather brought people outside that she realized what she’d done. “I’ve never felt comfortable since,” she says.

Comfort, in terms of where we live, is the harmonic confluence of myriad circumstances. As public health research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove has identified in her provocative theory of the psychology of place, we strive for four central “objects” in our environments: hearth, heart, grail and soul. We all want adequate shelter, loving relationships, comfort and spiritual satisfaction. We also seek safe and caring schools for our children, neighbors who keep up their homes at least as well as we do and a sense of entitlement to all common public spaces, from sidewalks to supermarkets. This protective membrane of associations, of what social scientists call “weak ties,” can be as supportive or destructive as the classical strong ties of family, religion or tribe. But weak ties don’t always develop automatically. Lyne Bowens would seem to have made a choice for integration, but in the end, an important comfort component for her—critical mass—is missing. It’s easy to see that physical integration doesn’t necessarily lead to relational integration: You can’t legislate who gets invited to a barbecue.


What you can do, though, is stack the deck, and it turns out that toward that end, proximity matters. A seventies study of the Dyckman Houses, a seven-building, middle-income housing project in Upper Manhattan, showed that friendships across racial and generational lines were more likely if people lived in the same building, and even more likely if they lived on the same floor. The authors of the study proposed that “when people are unacquainted they are likely to be more attracted to others whom they perceive as being like themselves,” and that “‘different’ people will most likely be ignored unless they are within the individual’s daily living space.” Finally, they noted, acquaintanceship leads to appreciation.

I have wondered, occasionally, at how it took me so many years to realize why I felt uncomfortable in monochromatic neighborhoods. Now, for the last six years, I have intentionally chosen only those neighborhoods that exceed all common notions of what “integrated” means. At best, these neighborhoods encourage omnidirectional weak and strong ties. I congratulate myself on finding such enclaves, yet I still see in them a psychic separatism; I still see the unfulfilled promise that is desegregation, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered inferior to true integration. “Desegregation simply removes legal and social prohibitions,” he proclaimed. To stop at the physical without addressing the relational is to end up, he admonished, in a society “where elbows are together and heads are apart.”

The notion of integration—residential or otherwise—has recently been bandied about with often-fuzzy nostalgia in a number of books representing all points along the political continuum. After all, given the chance, who wouldn’t want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Among the idea’s proponents is Tamar Jacoby, author of Someone Else’s House: America s Unfinished Struggle for Integration. Jacoby, a Manhattan Institute fellow, holds up integration as a vague but worthy goal, tarnished by liberal missteps and black militancy. Journalist Howard Kohn’s chronicle of Prince George’s County, Maryland, We Had a Dream: A Tale of the Struggles for Integration in America, dramatizes the curative powers of integration and interracial love. Tom Wicker points to white racism and a failure of national will as the culprits in his lament, Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. And then there is Charles Moskos and John Butler’s more optimistic All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, which focuses “foremost on avenues that promote black achievement rather than on the rhetoric of non-racism.”


In the real world, commitment to integration is by no means a given. A recent poll, for example, indicated that both black and white parents care less about whom their children sit next to in the classroom than what and how well they’re taught. Some wealthy Atlanta-area blacks are developing suburbs so they can have their own nonurban communities. Race crimes show up around the country with senseless frequency: A 13-year-old black Chicago boy sustained a brain-damaging beating for riding his bike into the “wrong” neighborhood; and just under the skin of perceived harmony, in the town of Jasper, Texas, James Byrd was dragged behind a pickup truck to his death.

What I want out of integration, it turns out, is terrifically humble. I want normalization. I want the banality of everyday congress. I want points of conflict to be about who mows their lawn, points of intersection to be contained in the myriad small favors neighbors do for each other—taking in newspapers, watching children, picking up something at the store. I want this proximity in an increasingly alienated world, where communities are made fragile by fear and crime and the isolation brought on by technology. Community as a concept is under siege—assaulted by gated communities; the imperfect dislocations of school busing; crime, violence and drugs; attrition from such institutions as churches, civic clubs and even, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam noted, bowling leagues.

Of course, the making of community has always been obstructed by racism. Neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, and the one in which I live now, are sometimes dismissed for the ways in which they fail. You can look anywhere—Columbia, Maryland; Montclair, New Jersey; Oak Park, Illinois; Grant Park, Atlanta; Park Slope, Brooklyn—and be disappointed. Maybe there’s a dusty Pete Seeger LP sitting in a cardboard box in more than one white resident’s basement, maybe a black resident isn’t trailed by shopkeepers in every store in town, but you’d be hard-pressed to find much in the way of interracial bidwhist nights, interracial pews, interracial dinner parties, interracial trips to the mall. Who still owns the bigger houses, the bigger stock portfolios; who has the connections to sway decision-making in the community boards, zoning meetings, PTA battles?

And yet what these neighborhoods do offer should not be dismissed. Just as athletes develop a muscle memory through repetitive training exercises, we who live in proximity to otherness can’t help but come to associate with that otherness a familiarity, incorporating it into our concept of what is permissible, possible, normal. And so while it may seem cynical to settle for such a small piece of the integration pie, you have to start somewhere. And it might as well be next door.