Five young African American kids look up, mostly uninterested, as I climb the hill toward the porch stoop on which they sit. It’s 10 am, Saturday morning. One of the first great days of spring, it’s sunny and clear, in the mid 50s. There are two girls, three boys, and a dozen pieces of broken glass strewn about the grass on which they play. I say hello and they say hi back. A young woman, maybe in her late 20s, leans out the window beside the porch and looks at me like I am crazy. By the way she interacts with the children, I guess at least a couple of them are hers.
I walk past the kids and into the entry hall. The door is old, lifeless. It has cracks, missing chunks, and holes. Whether the holes are from a stray bullet, an angry fist, or some other source, I cannot say. The building is brick, but cracking and neglected. The hall is plastered with cheap, industrial carpet that looks a hundred years old. It is stained and covered with litter… gum wrappers, empty bottles, a torn piece of newspaper, a beer can.
I take care of business and walk away, wishing the children a nice day.
The next apartment is worse. It looks like it has been vacant for years. I can tell that people live there, which somehow makes it more disturbing. It looks like the worst parts of Chicago, of southeast DC, of Latin America. It isn’t.
It is Madison, and it is two diametrically opposed realities at once. It is Allied Drive, less than three miles from my cozy little upper middle class neighborhood on the near west side. And it is another world.
I am dropping literature for the upcoming City Council election. I find few places to drop. Most of the buildings are multi-family. There are no mailboxes, no baskets, no welcome mats under which I can conveniently slide my "Get Out and Vote" card. I don’t want to litter, and I don’t like ringing bells and hoping someone will let me in.
So I do what I can. I find kids playing, and ask if they’ll open the door so I can leave a couple fliers on the floor of the halls. The halls are all the same. Uninviting, dark, frightening. Peeling paint and cheap, stained carpeting. Littered.
There are four young men hanging out at the next building. They look up at me, wondering what on earth I could possibly be doing there. I tell them, "I’m dropping literature for the election coming up this Tuesday."
"Can I put a couple fliers in the hallway?"
"Whatever." There is a fierceness dwelling behind the apathy. I can smell it. Like a vicious pendulum, swinging back and forth between anger and fear, anger and fear, anger and fear. I have the urge to somehow "fix" this, which just makes me sicker. I want to cry. My little baby is on my back, in a Kelty carrier the likes of which few in this neighborhood have probably ever seen. I ask her to say hi to the boys. She waves as we walk away.
I know these kids are shipped all over town to different schools – a vague recollection tells me at least 20 or 30 schools around Madison. The kids bring that forced separation back home. I can see it all around me. I know these families are constantly on the move, migrating from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. There is a fleeting sense here, as if everyone is just trying to be somewhere else. I can’t blame them.
The next building is locked; I can’t get in or drop any literature. There is a sign on the door. It is taped up, inscribed in black marker, "Read this. Get seen in this hall; watch how fast the cops get called. No more warnings." I can’t shake the desperation with which this sign leaves me. I think about my daughter, so safe on my back. I think about the little girl her age that lives in this building, and what life is like in her world.
There are lots of dead patches of grass, litter, cigarette butts, and empty bottles. It seems every building has an overflowing dumpster. A car flies by with music blaring out its open windows.
I turn the corner and am surrounded by the familiar. The southwest bike path cuts a clean, neat, middle class swath right through the heart of this world. I’ve biked it a thousand times, on my $2,000 road bike, looking left and right as I sail through this community that is only surreal, peripheral. "It’s not so bad," I’d mumble under the echoing din of guilt -- white guilt, rich guilt, easy life guilt, don’t do enough guilt… I don’t know which. I’d pat myself on the back for my willingness to even bike through this neighborhood. "That says a lot," I’d tell myself, probably thinking I deserved some award.
I come back to the present and watch a white family bike by. They look happy. Safe. Seconds later, they are gone. I can’t escape that easily; I have more rounds to do. The Latino family I see ahead of me, sitting on their porch, seldom safe, can’t escape at all.
My baby takes this all in, my wife walking slowly behind us.
There are two women talking as I drift toward the next building. I offer both a flier. They readily accept the flier and ask why they should vote for my candidate. He’s helping to move the Supersaver development forward, I say, and has helped secure new money for a high quality day care in the neighborhood.
Right here, right now, they seem like such small things; such distant things. "That’s what it’s all about," I tell them, "lots of small steps in the right direction." I want to believe it.
A car drives by at about 50, accelerating. The silence never lasts long.
"I’ve lived here for seven years," one of the women tells me. "How is more housing going to help me? I work hard. I have a job with the state. But no one else will accept my Section 8 voucher in this city. I want to leave, but I can’t."
I know this is a common story. Here is one of the good ones, I think. And all she wants is to get out. I want her to be able to leave, but at the same time I am frightened at the prospect of what that means for those left behind. It’s the good ones that are needed here. I don’t know what to say. I want to solve her problem, solve our problem, solve the world’s problem. But I’m so helpless; I just stand there in dumbfounded silence. Great white hope, I am not. But I can’t help the fact that I want to be exactly that.
A middle aged Hmong man is hanging out his window. I run up the hill wincing at the condition of his building’s front door. I ask him if I can drop some literature in the hall. He is very friendly, and runs through his apartment, to the hall, and opens the door for me. I thank him as I walk back down the hill. He is smiling and waving to me.
There is a middle aged, African American male sitting on the porch stoop in front of me. He reeks of alcohol, but I offer him my hand. "Do you live here?" I ask. "No," he says, "but I do live in District 10." Another stereotype shattered; I’m truly shocked to hear he knows his district.
"Are you going to vote for my guy?" I ask.
He says, "Probably. But I have a question for you."
"What is it?" I ask.
"There’s a woman opening the door across the parking lot, better hurry if you want to get in there." I thank him, run across the lot, drop some fliers, and run back. "What was that question?"
"I don’t remember," he tells me. "But thanks for coming by, and have a good day." The smell of alcohol is strong, especially because it’s still the morning. I shake his hand and start walking.
A door is propped open at the next building. I lean my head in. A white male, mid-40s, is moving in today. He’s happy to take my literature. I turn around and see another moving truck. Two African American men are working it into a tight spot. I offer them a piece of literature. "We’ve been involved in every single good thing that’s happened in this neighborhood," they say. I say that’s great, and thank them for their work. I want to talk more, but can see that they are busy. "We’ll probably vote for your candidate," they tell me as I walk away.
My baby is getting tired and is starting to cry. I want her to know how lucky she is.
We turn around and start heading back toward the car. I want to take every single child in this neighborhood with me to a place that’s safe. I’ll bet every one of their parents wants the same thing. I look back at the side of the street I’ve just walked. Old mattresses, chairs, furniture lines the street. Endless rows of junk, trash, debris. How had I not noticed that? I wonder if there’s something special about today, or if every day on Allied Drive looks the same.
A lot of people talk about Allied Drive. I wonder how many have actually seen it. I have talked about Allied Drive, but this is my first time here. I’ve lived in Baltimore and worked in southeast DC, so I have seen this all before. But not here; not in Madison. I deliver Meals on Wheels on south Park Street. It’s not the same.
I testified last week, before the Madison Common Council, and said that "using TIF to support a grocery store on Monroe Street is appropriate." I acknowledged that it was not the highest need, but it was a legitimate one.
I unlock the car and think back to that testimony and my editorial two days later. As I buckle my baby into her car seat, I wonder what $2.3 million of my taxpayer dollars could do here. And I wonder whether it’s appropriate to spend one cent of city dollars in a neighborhood like mine, while a world like this one exists just three miles away.
Author’s note: My wife, baby, and I bike the southwest bike path the following day. We bike right through Allied and I look at the buildings with a new appreciation. They look different from the bike path, just as I’d thought while walking the day before. I remember who I talked to and who lives where. I point out the building where the Hmong man lived. Thirty minutes later, I’ll see him at the playground with his daughter, niece, and nephew. His children will play with my baby and he and I will talk. He flashes his huge, beautiful smile one more time as we say goodbye and bike away. I point out the apartment where the apathetic young man lived, the building the new guy had just moved into, and the yard on which the kids had played in the broken glass. Seconds later, I see the five kids and their mom, walking on the bike path. I say hello to the five children I’d seen 24 hours earlier. I remember all five of them, but doubt that they recognize me. It’s amazing. Just two hours of walking slowly through this neighborhood and interacting with its residents, and I now feel like a part of this community. Allied Drive is no longer a theoretical concept on which to hang my guilt; I now know some of its people. Maybe that connection is the first step toward something bigger. I can only hope.