Uh-oh, (Spa) Ghettos

25 08 2011

People have certain thoughts when it comes to the Bronx. Some good, lots bad. The positive ones tend to be the Yankees (blech), A Bronx Tale, the Bronx Zoo…that’s about it. I’ve talked plenty about my love of the Bronx in the past. It has plenty of charm, history, good people, and good sights to make up for its shortcomings. (Except for maybe the Yankees.)

But the number one term that people tend to come up with for where I work? “Ghetto.”

It can be a noun: “You work in the ghetto?”

An adjective: “We mad ghetto!”

An adverb: “We ran ghettoly down the street.”

OK, a noun and an adjective.

The actual definition, according to the ever-useful Dictionary.com, is “a section of the city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.”

We all know there’s much more to the concept than that. It’s a source of both pride and shame. Everyone loves the tales from musicians and athletes who grew up in the ghetto, worked hard, achieved success, and made it out. The absolute best ones never forget where they came from–they return to the old neighborhood to do special free concerts, donate to the Boys and Girls Club, and talk fondly in interviews about what they learned growing up the way they did, usually taking a bizarre sense of pride in their area code.

SocialJerk is representing the 718.

Being ghetto, and from the ghetto, is one of those things that’s a boast when I say it about me, and an insult when I say it about you. Much like I can call my aunts crazy, but if you were to do it, we’d have an issue.

When my coworker and I saw one of our teen group girls wandering lost on the sidewalk, unable to find the building for our first group meeting, she said to me, “I’ll just yell down out the window to her. We can be ghetto.”

Yes, we can be ghetto. This is our neighborhood. Who are we trying to impress? We’re not going to let societal conventions and etiquette keep us from going about things in a convenient, reasonable manner.

That’s one thing we love about identifying with the ghetto. Not caring what people think. Being tough, overcoming, surviving. Handling things yourself. You’re yelling at me on the street? No, I’m not going to call the cops, or politely ignore you. I’m going to confront you, and we’ll put a stop to this now. Unless I know you have a gun. Being ghetto is also about being smart–knowing what situations you can and can’t get yourself out of. Using those smarts to get what you need. Not being a pushover.

But then there are times when it’s not so nice to hear. Like when I went to college in a leafy Connecticut suburb, and answered “Brooklyn” when asked where I was from. “Oh, so you’re from like…the ghetto?” Not said in a, hey, you must have some fun stories about the neighborhood characters we missed out on, growing up in sterile suburban environments. More of an, oh dear, you’re probably going to beat us up, and you’re definitely going to need to borrow money.

Um, fuck you. My mom has a PhD and we live in a house. Don’t judge me.

My clients struggle with this all the time. Ghetto is a part of their identities, and they’re proud of where they’re from. But in the larger world, ghetto ways of dealing with things don’t always pan out.

When you struggle every day to be treated like a full human being, and to get respect, it’s very hard to just turn it off. I’ve had numerous clients proudly tell me that they cursed out their teacher, or their ACS worker, or their new boss. We talk about the fact that this doesn’t seem to be working for them. They’re failing, have no job, or their court ordered supervision has now been extended. But they’re still kind of proud, because the way they see it, they stood up for themselves.

At the same time, my clients try to distance themselves from the neighborhood, and from the ghetto identity. Starting at a young age, they talk about getting out of the Bronx. One mother in particular is always eager to tell me about their station in life. “I tell my kids, we live here right now because we have to financially, but we’re not like these other people here.” “Here” is a housing project in the Bronx.

There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that goes along with this worldview. People who live in the projects are no good. They are dirty, dishonest, and lazy. But we live in the projects…huh. Well that’s because we’re thrifty! We’re saving up to move to a better address. Perhaps even Westchester.

They’ve got to make it work somehow.

We all need to learn to navigate different situations and environments. The way you act in school is not the way you act at work, the way you talk to your friends is not the way you talk to your parents. (Says the girl who has been repeatedly admonished to stop using the word “douchebag” at family gatherings.) My friends love listening to me talk to my family, because that’s the only time the Brooklyn accent I insist I outgrew (what, people can do that) comes out.

As a social worker, I approach my clients from a strengths based perspective. Everybody has strengths. We all have things we’re good at. Being ghetto, and being from the ghetto, involves a lot of strength. Skills and wisdom develop. A big part of my job is helping my clients to see how they can use these to their advantage. How they can be assertive, a good advocate, a strong parent and role model for their children, without alienating their children’s teachers or getting their housing application mysteriously misplaced, because a worker didn’t appreciate the attitude.

But I always tread carefully. I don’t want to have to get ghetto on anybody.

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12 responses

25 08 2011
meg

During an intake I asked a nine yr old girl what she likes abt herself and she responded” well im from brooklyn….so that means im ghetto.”

25 08 2011
socialjerk

Oh, I love this. That will be my response next time I’m asked this in any kind of social work icebreaker.

25 08 2011
whiteladyinthehood

I guess were at the total opposite of the spectrum on this subject. We would probably have to “agree to disagree” on a lot of things. I have such a different view point because I’m white and saw my neighborhood turn into the hood…but, I’m glad that your trying to be a good influence.

25 08 2011
socialjerk

It’s always hard to be the only anything. A lot of the street harassment I get in the neighborhood I attribute to the fact that I’m often the only white person around, and therefore look like an easy target. (Until they piss me off and I open my mouth. Then they realize they were wrong.)

It’s hard to watch a place you love take a turn for the worse. I spent a lot of time in Syracuse, and you can see what it once was, and how it because such a depressed area. But I think utilizing what helps people survive those difficult circumstances can, at least sometimes, help them to improve the area.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

26 08 2011
whiteladyinthehood

I thought you were a black lady…I was afraid you were going to think I was prejudice or something..thanks for replying back! I admire your toughness! I’m on the timid side I guess – I’m afraid if I get too vocal..someone may come back and burn my house down..sad – I know.
And I read some of your other commentors posts – and I do have respect for the police! I feel empathy for them and the things they have to see/deal with. I just feel like some of them turn their back on some of the crimes that happen here in my neighborhood..thanks for not going ‘ghetto’ on me..lol I like the honesty of your posts!

25 08 2011
Leïla

The only thing that bothers me about living in the ghetto is not so much the stereotypes that come along with living in such a place, but the lack of security. The authorities should be making a bigger effort keeping neighborhoods safe. Just my opinion.

25 08 2011
socialjerk

Oh, I definitely agree. The lack of police and 911 response in the neighborhood is appalling. I love cops (mostly just one) but it seems like sometimes even they’re afraid, or they are told to write off segments of the population.

I do think we could be using a lot of the positive aspects of these areas (people being involved in their neighbors’ lives, in particular) to combat some of these types of problems. But the authorities need to step it up.

28 08 2011
cb

I live in what is immediately identifiable as the ‘roughest’ part of London. Some of my friends refuse to visit me (especially the ones with kids). Actually the area I work in is much ‘nicer’ than the area I live in. Sometimes I take a little pride in it but sometimes it upsets me.
It’s what you say about writing off whole areas of the population due to their postcode (ZIP in US-speak!).

29 08 2011
socialjerk

Anthony Bourdain did a special on particularly depressed areas of the US (Detroit, Baltimore, and Buffalo) and said something along the lines of, “How can the most affluent country on earth write off whole sectors of society?” It was a wise observation from a food/travel show.

28 08 2011
Weekly Social Work Links 29 « Fighting Monsters

[…] And SocialJerk writes about ‘ghettos’. […]

10 09 2011
Prima

Wow, my mother has also asked me to stop using the word “douchebag” at family gatherings! It’s almost like we’re in the same family!

12 09 2011
socialjerk

I believe her exact thoughts were “You’re both intelligent, educated women. This is how you express yourself?”

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