Originally Posted: Spring 2017
Recently, I sat on the back patio of my home, enjoying the sunshine and watching the butterfly that kept landing on the banister. My male dog tossed and turned in a dirt pit he dug for himself and his toys, while my girl dog rested her head sleepily against my leg. It was a typically quiet and serene moment at a place I call (t)HugzMansion.
My house rests in an area that has its fair offering of boarded-up houses and vacant lots. From my backyard and because of a vacant lot, I can see straight through to the one-way street one block over. It’s a busy westbound street and I watched as traffic sped by on their way to various important destinations. A collection of sounds christened the air that ranged from loud trunk music to kids playing, and ultimately my personal favorite, stillness. There is no shortage of trees in my backyard and I took special notice of the fresh spring buds sitting on high limbs that reached for the sky’s approval. Several trees were covered in purple buds that looked like a high field of lavender from where I sat. It was (and is) quite beautiful. Cinematic Orchestra’s provided me and my dogs an evening soundtrack. It was a solid warm, peaceful spring day full of the kind of sunshine that tickled the tips of the growing grass and kissed my melanin ever so gently.
I had no complaints and even fewer fears.
According to a 2013 Fox59 report, the 46208 zip code was listed as not only one of the most dangerous zips in Indianapolis; it was ranked as one of the most dangerous in the entire country. In this zip code, along with 46205, a person has a one in fourteen chance of becoming a victim of a homicide. While the report itself goes on to mention certain pockets within these areas, the zip code itself is used as a blanket statement for entire neighborhoods covered under those specific numbers. Butler-Tarkington, which is not mentioned in the 2013 article but makes up a huge portion of 46208, was featured in the news in October 2016 for 'celebrating' one year without violence after a string of unsolved murders left families broken and police stumped. At the time of those stats, it was listed as one of the high crime, dangerous pocket areas. The MLK and Riverside areas have also been known to fall under the epithet of 'dangerous areas.' Both areas have endured decades long notoriety with locals as being oppressively unstable and full of crime. I am not writing this to deny the existence of the all too frequent violence that plagues our beloved community. In fact, I can easily understand how these labels were achieved. Who can forget 10-year-old Deshaun Lee Swanson, who was shot and killed during a drive-by that also injured several others? That happened around the corner from my mother’s house and next door to the parents of a lifelong sister-friend. My stepfather was supposed to be at that house that day for the party they were having, but had decided to stay home. I grew up in Butler Tarkington and now I live in Crown Hill; both are 46208 zip codes. Trust me when I say I am awake, alert, and aware of the violence that is happening in these areas.
Still, I have a question: does the classification of "most-dangerous", put a heavy, dark omen over these neighborhoods? Isn't similar to the scarlett letter so as any time you tell another person that you live over here, they immediately affix a burned-edged "V" onto your forehead? Are we all "one of them", to be marked, tethered, and discared? Do these labels at least somewhat eradicate the presence of the love that I happen to know exists in these areas?
Consider this: when journalists characterize us as “the most dangerous zip code in the country”(or even the city), it doesn't identify the isolated pockets where the violence is most prominent. One would have to read between the lines, or already know the truth, to get that. Instead, that label engulfs and speaks for the entire area covered by said zip code, while conveniently forgetting that despite what you see from the outside looking in, there are still families here. Even in those high crime pockets, there are still people with goals and dreams who call that place home. There are youth and elders, young adults and generations of families that live in these "dangerous" zip codes. Many collectives and small grassroots organizations have been created to attempt to combat the violence AND all the other preceding issues plaguing our communities (food, transportation, health, etc) that are direct contributors of violence.
I grew up in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. Although I left the area in 1999 and have since lived all over Indianapolis, I returned to 46208 in 2007 and have since remained. I can say with certainty and experience that there is so much beauty to be seen and experienced in the hood. One year, I tried to apply for a job with the INRC, a community-based organization that targets urban areas with the intention of building neighborhood awareness, communication, and dialogue, as well as empowering the community to teach, grow and sustain itself through their own initiatives and talents. They use what is referred to as the ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) model to achieve this success. When using the ABCD model, you take inventory on people's strengths but you also assess what might be considered “weaknesses” and work on utilizing them as strengths. In other words, there are no weaknesses. A person may not like to speak in public but to the contrary they are great listeners. That person could record information or play a role of observation. It extends outside of people. Instead of seeing homes as vacant properties, they can become artistic canvases or even rebailitated meeting houses and safe places. Using the talents and gifts of the people within these areas, coupled with identifying ‘troubled’ areas (regarding buildings AND the people), and then learning how to turn those issues into assets is how you revitalize a community from the inside out...without gentrifying it.
But in order to respect that there is talent in these so-called urban, dangerous areas, there must be belief. There must be hope. Despite what is said and thought about us and even in what was once known as one of the most dangerous zip codes to live in, life still exists within our numbered boundaries. Indystar isn’t really good about reporting that though. The media is great for being first on the scene to capture the screams of people grappling with the sudden murder of a loved one. They are Johnny on the Spot when a drug bust happens, even if they don’t have much information. They report stories without even being able to name the victim. But when over three hundred people draw together, along with the police (by happenstance), on a corner where folks are scared to make a complete stop at the four-way, no one is there but our own cell cameras. When two thousand people gathered together in an event that could rival all of the summer expos and food festivals, at a park inside that dangerous zip code, the only stories that were written were the ones we wrote for ourselves. Remember that person that doesn’t like to speak in public but is a good listener? They would fit well right here to observe, listen, then to help create stories that live long after we do. OUR STORIES MUST BE TOLD. I am now part of a neighborhood organization called The Learning Tree where telling our stories is a top priority. They also utilize the ABCD model for pulling gifts and talents out of our neighborhood members.
This writeup is is not a list of suggestions about what we could do. Instead, it's more of an ode to what we are doing.There is great work going on in the areas that many people are afraid of based on what they’ve heard or read. I spoke about my neighborhood to a coworker the other day with pride, not embarrassment or shame. As I heard myself, I couldn’t help but notice the second nature of which I bragged on the incredible initiatives in my area. The block I recently moved to is a very busy block. The street is cramped with cars on both sides and the people hang out late at night with loud conversations. There are vacant homes on both sides of the street. My grandfather used to own one of them. When I walk out of my door, I am not inundated with the negative. I see duplexes with bikes on porches and older men who frequent each others stoops on a regular. There is a daycare in operation right next door to me. I hear kids crying as they get dropped off in the morning and laughing outside as mothers pull up in the evening.
I’ve often told people when I moved to 34th and Clifton (The Cliff), I was nervous as shit. I feared that I was making a mistake that would cost me my safety and/or peace of mind. I couldn’t have been further from reality. In the three years I stayed there, although some weird things definitely came about like the police repeatedly visiting and looking for someone who didn’t live there, or a random man knocking at my door at like 3 AM (I didn’t answer), it was a wonderful experience overall. There was a neighborhood street clean-up the first year I was there. The second-year led me to meet Mr. William Ryder, the artist whose home was a museum of his own incredible sculptures. He also told me how his father used to dress him up as a girl when he lived in or near Lyles Station, IN, where county officials were kidnapping black children to do radiation experiments on them. From what Mr. Ryder told me, they preferred boys so his parents dressed him as a girl out of safety measures. I wouldn’t have met him, toured his home, or looked into his beautiful eyes and saw all the ancestry they held with artistic pride had I been living in the safety nets of someplace like Normandy Farms (North Indpls).
There is a gas station nearby my house that is pretty heavy with all kinds of legal/illegal activity. The police camp out 2-4 cars at a time in the lot across from my house, waiting for the inevitable nearby call. Just last week, I watched a cop sit behind the Double 8 building and watch the station activities from his car using binoculars. I can’t be too surprised. After all, this IS one of the most dangerous places in the entire country. People drive through here daily. I wonder if, when driving, anyone notices the precious gems that those of us who live here see? Such as the teddy bear memorial that I believe grows by the week from where two men lost their lives after a driver jumped the curb, striking and ultimately killing both men as they awaited the bus. It’s old news but the neighborhood hasn’t forgotten them. Do people only see what they believe are bums and addicts or do they notice the mothers walking down the street holding hands with their children too? Those are real people. Have they seen the garden preparation at the Flanner House that will provide freshly grown food to area residents in addition to offering gardening classes. Do people see all the kids that get after school food from one of the many neighborhood programs? Kheprw, which is also based out of the 46208 zip code, has a great, long-standing community food program for a low monthly cost. Neighborhood and community building is happening right before our eyes...
...and right above the labels.
Let the news tell it, the only saving grace in these areas is the 10-Point Coalition, spearheaded by a man whose affinity for stop and frisk, racial profiling of his own people, and disparaging remarks about black youth keep him locked out from making any real impact on the people who aren't filling their water bottles from his big, red cooler of juice.
Photo ops and a ‘walk thru’ or two with the Mayor are dope tho.
The link I provided in regards to the Butler-Tarkington area going a year without violence starts with a video of the news crew walking up 40th street with the 10 Point guys. The media seems impressed but those of us who live over here are not so much. We don’t see them until we turn on the tv or see the news crew outside. They don't come to community events or partner with other organizations in the area. It's the Harris way or bust. Less reported are the grassroots efforts of the RESIDENTS. The people who live here when the camera crews pack up and go back to Noblesville and Carmel. The fathers who create summer programs for young Black teens and the mothers who have created after school snack programs. We have little league programs mentorships on the same blocks many would be too afraid to turn down. Those of us in these neighborhoods, pockets and zip codes know the names of whose doing the work and how to find them. Do you?
A couple of weeks back, on the MLK side of 46208, I catered a “living room concert series”, where locals gathered together in a neighborhood living room for a concert-style dinner, entertainment and conversation. This event included area neighbors as well as people from the different organizations and backgrounds that have the pull, the pockets and the DESIRE to invest in our areas. No animals were harmed and no gunshots rang out in the process. Lives were not lost; in fact, they were inspired and uplifted. The living room concert featured a live band and singer with me serving as the host and poet. Following the entertainment hour was time for relection and community dialogue where questions were asked and input from those of us who live here was shared. All of this took place, after dark, in one of the most dangerous zip codes of Indianapolis and the entire country.
There is no question that violence, drugs, and police in these communities are frequent
occurrences. I am by no means attempting to dismiss the importance of reducing the negative statistics over here.
But there are great things happening in the 46208 areas and it’s not coming by way of gentrification. It’s coming at the hands of the community residents that either stay here or travel over here to help rebuild the people. That’s the difference between gentrification and community rebuilding: In the gentrifying model, homes and land are bought and remodeled to look pretty. The rustic browns and tans of hood life are replaced with friendly hues from the pastel color wheel. Pink, blue and yellow siding line up the newly constructed homes or the ‘rehabbed’ places as the old neighbors are pushed and priced out and new ones are brought in. Coffee shops pop up and white people start jogging with babies and strollers and the next thing you know, what was once a predominantly black area is now the new hipster area. It bothers me to see how aloof their faces are as they grab lattes and go back to homes that once protected Black families who no longer can afford to even rent a room on the block. *See Fall Creek Boulevard. *See Irvington. *See 10th Street. SEE INDIANAPOLIS. Fountain Square didn’t become the revitalized artistic gem that it is now without pushing a great deal of people out and rewriting the story without including room for them in it.
But in the community building model, we fix the PEOPLE first and then assess what needs to be done regarding the homes, buildings, and land. The people are not pushed out; they are empowered. You can’t empower a building; you can only make it pretty. The true revilatilization comes from who is placed inside. In our model, we start inside and then work our way out. That's called healing and building. And it is happening all over 'dangerous' areas with little to no coverage from local news outlets or stations. If it wasn’t for these blogs and articles that we write, we would only believe that these dangerous zip codes are places where you only drive through if necessary and you never move to on purpose.
I moved here on purpose, even with a fistful of fear I had collected by what I had heard. That fear was quickly eradicated as I quickly saw the neighborhood as more than the black and white words in an article. I saw it's humanity. It's human spirit. I saw it breathe. I didn’t get the job at INRC but I’ve learned and am still learning how to apply the ABCD model to my community, and I continue to work with the Learning Tree. Right now, if you look at my big yellow house, you may notice one of the blinds is a jumbled up mess. It is ridiculously ugly. It’s been torn, shredded and manipulated to fit my dogs needs to see the mailman. I honestly don’t know what they did to get the blinds like they have but I've failed to replace them as of yet and it’s been a month or so.
You can see straight through on the bottom portion. Ok fine, it’s time to replace them. If a person was to judge my home based on my blinds, they would expect to walk into a dust-filled, grease motel with floors full of stuff you don’t want to step or stand on, the stench of dog piss and two couches that don’t match in one room. That’s far from the case. It’s typically clean in here although there are times when I get lazy and need to wash dishes or clothes. There is no shortage of furniture but everything has it's place. If you started from the inside first, you wouldn’t expect to see those blinds. In a sense, I guess I own the most dangerous blinds in the local area...and maybe even the United States.
Much like my blinds, the inner city has a stigma attached to it that comes with lowered expectations and stereotypical assumptions. Many people will stop at the stigma and never venture inward to learn otherwise. But if you dare step inside for a bit, you won’t last five minutes without learning that love thrives here, daily. You will meet artists of varying mediums – string players, harpists, singers, and musicians. Painters and sketch artists, writers and photographers. There are places to learn how to garden, do yoga and work on clean eating. Yes, we live in a food desert with no standing bank. But we have an ATM with no fees. And recently, a bodega was added for grocery options.** Yes, there is violence around us and an overwhelming police presence despite our lack of trust in them. But there is always laughter on our blocks. There are smiles and children with their bikes turned upside while they spin the tires with their hands. There are lavender buds on the tree limbs out back and the sun still kisses our flowers with precision. We have as much silence as a Carmel, Indiana subdivision and in the morning, the chirping birds don’t hesitate to sing to us. We are business owners. Working people. Retirees and school kids. Parents and elderly people with stories in their pockets. We are a community of people. We are more than a zip code and it’s label.When I see or hear stuff like ‘I wish black folks would come together’, I can’t help but shake my head in immediate irritation (while wondering where the people who are quick to say this actually live). Clearly, they took the media bait and they believe there is little over here beyond the violence and heartbreak.
In reality, there is a great deal of good that goes on and I guess this is one of those instances where you just have to live it to know it. Or at least be a frequent visitor. The outside looking in often leads to a front row seat to ignorance.From my front row seat, I get to see butterflies land right in front of me.
That same butterfly landed on me before flying off again. #BeFearless
Nestled under the cold blanket of a harsh label, there are human beings trying to do and striving for the best...for themselves AND for their community.