A Good Neighborhood

Jeff Nixa - South Bend, Indiana
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, September 2, 2011
Jeff Nixa

Americans spend a lot of time and money finding just the right place to live. Jeff Nixa wanted a good place for his family when they needed a new home 15 years ago. He’s happy with the location they found even though some people questioned his choice.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I live in a bad neighborhood.

At least that’s what people said about it. “Cottage Grove Avenue,” said a friend. “That’s a bad neighborhood.” A co-worker said, “I wouldn’t buy there. There’s no resale value.” One mother was appalled. “Don’t you want your kids to go to a good school?” Even our real estate agent sat me down and said, “Think about your wife’s safety.”

Soon the fear began to sink in. I called friends who lived there and asked, “Do you feel safe?” They laughed. “Have you been talking to real estate people again?” They invited us to dinner, in the bad neighborhood.

As we drove up, I scanned the streets as if on a recon mission in Fallujah. But our friends welcomed us in, poured wine, gave thanks, and passed homemade bread. After dessert they brought out crime statistics on a map from local police.

Sure enough, in the blocks surrounding us a vacant house had been vandalized. Drugs confiscated from a woman. A man passed out in a yard. This was as bad as—college.

Then I noticed the same symbols dotting the rest of the city: robberies, rapes, domestic violence. That month burglaries and auto thefts were worse in a wealthy suburb.

That’s when I realized that all of those warnings really weren’t about crime, real estate values, or schools. They were code words white folks like me use to signal “low-income people of color”—a perfectly concealed racist weapon, hidden deep in the anxious beliefs of my own friends and colleagues.

I believe sometimes the truth does set people free. So we bought the house on Cottage Grove.

That was seven years ago. No one told me that the day we moved in, a pack of joyful kids would run over to meet our kids. That our historic house cost less than a minivan. About Demetrius, raising his nieces while their mother is doing time. About Jose and Maria’s burrito place. And Mike, the ponytailed Harley biker who one day stepped out directly in front of a speeding car and yelled “Hey,” to the startled driver, slamming his fist on the hood, “there’s kids around here!”

In my “bad” neighborhood, we sit on front porches, hear the neighbor girls’ jazz double-dutch jump rope riffs, and buy snow cones on hot days out of an old guy’s shopping cart.

Sure, there are nuisances here: litter, alley dogs, clutter in yards. But danger? I’ve learned that stupid behavior is color blind, and bullets prefer alcohol and drug deals over law-abiding citizens any day.

I love my new neighborhood—it balances my life, shows me real color, and saves me from things far worse than litter or a stolen Subaru—like the blindness and coded racism of privilege.

Jeff Nixa has lived with his family in South Bend’s Near Northwest neighborhood since 1996. He has a law degree, and his careers have included hospital chaplain, massage therapist, and counselor. His interests include sea kayaking, bike commuting, running, woodworking, and landscaping. He is currently completing an apprenticeship with a Cherokee healer and plans to offer classes on urban shamanism to help people open their hearts and honor the earth.