I recently found myself in a part of town that’s always had a bad reputation. It’s one of those places that doesn’t really grow; it just sort of accumulates. It’s like it popped out of the ground, fully formed and crumby, and never got off the downhill track. If you wanted to buy sleaze of any order, that’s where you went to get it – and you knew you’d be overcharged. People who couldn’t afford better or had lost interest in better lived there. As soon as they could, they moved out. Or, if hope somehow forced its way back into their lives, they packed up and went looking for a place where hope might survive. The thing that was most depressing about it, though, was the sense that people living there believed that’s the way things had to be. Not how things should be, but had to be. It was if every member of that particular community heard the same voice telling them You’re not like regular folks. You deserve the gangs, the dealers, the pimps, the streets full of trash, and the gunfire. Don’t bother trying to clean up the joint, either, ’cause the guy next to you’s going to mess it up faster than you can push your broom.
What I saw this last visit was so small a change it could easily go unnoticed. In fact, the major impact was from something I can’t describe. It’s just a sense of things, of something different. It’s still no Disney movie set and there are a lot of guys on the street you wouldn’t ask to hold your briefcase while you feed the parking meter, but you know something new is happening. The only solid evidence of change is the graffiti. It’s not gone. No one’s sent workers around to scrub off the gang signs and the other tags. Someone, though, has very deliberately and blatantly painted them over. Not all of them (I don’t think there’s that much paint in the stores), but a surprising – and very encouraging – number are just flat-out eliminated.
That’s courageous. If you haven’t lived in a place where you can get shot dead for wearing the wrong color clothes – or skin – then you might want to consider the bravery of a person who does live in that environment and refuses to be intimidated. That disappeared gang tag said “We rule.” That paint blob covering it says, “Like hell you do.” What’s taking place is civilization. It’s ordinary, decent people affirming their right to live ordinary, decent lives. The man or woman wielding the paintbrush is scared spitless; you can bet on that. They know they’re confronting a tyranny no less vicious than any other. Brute mentality operating on a cash basis is pretty much indistinguishable from brute mentality exercised in the name of a higher cause. If you think facing down the people who work that way aren’t dangerous, give it a try. As a nation, we’d rather just make sure the doors are all locked, twitter, and fulminate about sweeping social changes and noble goals. In fact, however, those neighbors breaking the bonds that have constricted their neighborhood for so long are the ones making progress. Tiny steps, for sure, but progress. They know more about self-government and honest democracy than all the deal artists we send to D.C.