Two Neighborhoods

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I pulled out the manuscript of a novel I wrote around the time of his death. I had become involved as a volunteer in fair housing issues and wanted to write about what I was learning. I was a new immigrant to the US, clueless about racial issues in this country; the battered manuscript box has deservedly sat in the bottom drawer of an old filing cabinet ever since.

An incident based on my research for the book has stuck with me, however. The central character, a young woman newspaper reporter, works in Palo Alto, CA and goes to East Palo Alto, a black neighborhood just across the freeway, to interview a community organizer. Here are excerpts from a few paragraphs:

The afternoon was hot, and she was thankful for the shade of the overhanging trees as she drove down University Avenue toward East Palo Alto. She had never been there before. There had been nothing to go for. And she would have felt diffident about going to a black ghetto as a mere sightseer, even if it had occurred to her to do so.

As she came down the ramp on the other side of the freeway, she knew she was in a different country. The road was suddenly potholed and bumpy, and brown dust rose in thick choking swirls from its verges. She slowed and looked about her. Such tiny bedraggled houses, desperately in need of paint. Yards littered with junk, yet here and there a brave attempt at order and color. She came upon a few tatty shops. Surely this couldn’t be the main shopping center? Yet soon she could see the sign, NAIROBI SHOPPING CENTER, and underneath, in a language she could not understand, UHURU NA UMOJA.

Showing the predictable set of fears and prejudices about the African-American people she sees around her, the reporter parks her car and walks to her appointment, during which she is invited to sit in on a fair housing case.

She said goodbye, and walked slowly back to the car, past the Louisiana Soul Food Kitchen and the Black and Tan Barber. The heat and dust were almost unbearable.

Back across the freeway, she noticed for the first time the neatly swinging redwood sign: Welcome to Palo Alto. A few blocks further down University and it hit her like a punch in the gut. She pulled over to the side of the road and rested her head on the steering wheel, fighting back an impulse to vomit. The contrast was an obscenity. Huge magnolias here lined the street on both sides, giving deep dappled shade to the well-paved highway. Between the road and the white concrete sidewalks rose great greening mounds of juniper and ivy, and beyond them, with manicured lawns and discreet sprinkler systems, were the complacent mansions of the rich.

One Response to “Two Neighborhoods”

  • An attention-grabbing dialogue is worth a comment. I believe that you must write extra on this subject, it might not be a taboo subject however generally people are not strong enough to talk on such things. Cheers.

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