When I got to college in the fall of 2009, one of the very first lessons that I was taught was, “Don’t hang out around 16th Street or beyond at night.” Reports of gang activity, armed robberies, and assault had taught local residents to only bask in the joys of 8th or 9th streets. Those smaller-numbered streets were cobblestoned, with ornate lampposts, curly-Q signage, and the smell of pizza and garlic reeling in hungry travelers of all kinds.
However, the quaint characteristics of this side of town – the ivy-covered houses and pillared white churches – were replaced by foreclosed, rundown houses and liquor stores once you walked too far south.
I quickly defined 16th Street as follows:
16th Street (noun): a road characterized by unsafe conditions, low-income housing, and a history of crime which should be avoided at night if you are a woman, alone, or both. A fearful street that marks off the boundaries of a “bad” part of town.
Do you know a street like this? There’s one in every town. Makes you feel the need to purchase pepper spray.
Tonight I suddenly found myself on 16th street in the “bad part” as I was running – I don’t know how I got there, but I looked around and there I was, at the intersection by the gas station and the peeling brown house and the cluttered antique store. I eyed the red sun, barely visible over the housetops, with apprehension and ran harder. 16th street is a bad place to be at night echoed in my head over and over again.
Maybe because I went to a Christian theology conference this weekend with a focus on cross-cultural theology and an emphasis on understanding other culture, but suddenly I had an intense desire to understand the culture of 16th street. Only 6 streets from where I live. It seemed absurd to engage in a cross-cultural activity so close to home, but I remembered the messages of the conference – that America is full of culture, that religion has to be global and that Christianity was never meant to look homogenous across the world.
I reflected on the challenge that was given at the conference. A challenge to understand my own cultural strengths and weaknesses and way of faith, and then to undertake the hard task of engaging with unfamiliar culture groups in order to know more and gain an enriched understanding of God and life.
So, in a small way, I engaged. I jogged in the mild spring air and looked and listened. This is what I saw.
Screened-in porches on every house, some filled with junk, some filled with family members peeking out.
Little kids on bikes (predominantly hispanic) and parents chasing them.
Daffodils, and the green beginnings of tulips at the street edge.
A gaggle of teenaged boys standing by the stoplight.
An empty laundromat.
A church with a sign in Spanish and a brick steeple.
Trash in the grass.
A gas station with a Chinese place attached to it, a place I’ve heard has delicious food.
Windows covered in flowered bedsheets and planters shaped like turtles.
A blue, chipping house trimmed in yellow.
Adults smoking on the front porch, watching cars motor by.
Folding chairs on the driveway, arranged in a circle.
Scary? Hardly. Lower-income? Yes. Unsafe? I didn’t feel unsafe. Crime-ridden? Maybe.
The interesting thing is that I’m going to live on 16th street next year. Granted, the townhouse that my friends and I will move into is towards the highway, farther down the street from the neighborhoods, next to the cemetery. To buried neighbors. It’s new and supposedly safe and the community is filled with college students and young couples.
But the street that has for so long been a “bad part of town” in my estimation is about to become my neighborhood.
Will I engage with my real, living, 16th-street neighbors, or be content to enjoy the silence of the cemetery?