On Belonging: The Gentrified World Versus the Pull of Home

Writer Lolly Bowean tries to reconcile the gentrified city she now lives in with what used to be home.

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First you'll need to go "over there."

Stop. Check out the scenery. Is there a grocery store or food market with glistening oranges and lemons and sweaty kaleon display? Or is there a convenience store, the shelves crammed with potato chips, cookies, cigarettes, lighters, and overpriced dish detergent and Pampers?

Wait. Is the gas station also the grocery store? Are there men standing outside, idle, but selling washrags, burned DVDs, and loose cigarettes for 50 cents each?

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That should tell you where you are.

You are here. See the cycling studio? The boutique that sells only socks? The coffee shop that offers espresso and specializes in gourmet doughnuts?

You are here. But here, you are a touristsomeone visiting, seeing but not belonging. So you go looking for where the working people, the most vulnerable people those other people are.

When you ask,"Where do those people live?" these people will tell you, "Over there." So you go over there.

Think inconvenient.

Think to yourself, The upscale retail boutiques, posh restaurants, and buildings with doormen are here, and then go travel in the opposite direction.

Maybe ask the doorman. But not directly. No one wants to admit they live in that neighborhood. Not in the way you're left to identify and label it: poor, gritty, troubled, violent.

He will try to direct you somewhere else to a restaurant or museum, maybe. Instead ask him where he likes to eat and how to get there. Make it conversational, like you're interested in him, not where he's from. Get him to spill the details on the route.

Get on the same bus, the same train the doorman told you about, and ride it until the people start to change. On public transportation, the people always change.

They start out with suits and ties, briefcases and leather purses. The women have on heels and sunglasses. Always sunglasses. It's so bright in their world. They have to protect their eyes. Their sight. What they see.

You are a tourist—someone visiting, seeing but not belonging. So you go looking for where the working people, the most vulnerable people — those other people — are.

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Eventually, those people will all file off the bus, and these people will get on. You'll recognize them because they look like people you know. Grease-stained white shirts and checkerboard black pants? Then they work in the kitchen. Gray shirt tucked into the gray pants? Parking-lot attendant. Black shirt, black pants? Security guard.

And their shoes. Look at their shoes. Your mother would call them sensible shoes. The kind that they can stand around in all day. And extra. These people have to be ready to stand for extra. These people are always expected to work extra.

And bags. Not fancy bags. Shopping bags, the kind that are supposed to be thrown away but that cheap people reuse. To carry their lunch. Carry their nice but not sensible shoes. Carry soap and toilet paper and paper towels to their grandmother's house. They are always carrying.

Ask yourself: Why is it always this way? In La Perla. In Mattapan. In West Englewood. In Saint-Denis. In East New York. Why is it that they live here? And those live "over there"? Why do they have that? While those get this?

Pay attention.

After all, you are a tourist.

But what if you weren't? What if you grew up here? Where would be that place where you would likely have to live?

Far. Those people always end up far, that you know.

If you work hard with your hands, you probably live far. Far from where you work. Far from where these people live.

Please pay attention, you tell yourself. See the people on the bus.

See the landscape outside start to change. Any more grocery stores? Clothing stores? Yoga studios and health clubs?

Think liquor stores and sidewalk sales. If the liquor store is called a wine shop, you are not over there. But if there are white signs in the window advertising the price of the Cognac, vodka, and rum, you might be.

Are the restaurants dine-in or mainly takeout spots? Can you see bulletproof glass?

Are you over there yet? There are no banks. Is there a check-cashing spot, where people are paying too much to turn the paper they got from their labor into cash? Those people rely on cash.

Are there beauty-supply stores and a dozen barbershops and hair salons? Over there, communities are always flush with beauty salons, you remind yourself.

I guess when you live over there, beauty is all you've got. If you look the part, maybe then these people won't mistreat you. Maybe. They'll be polite. In public. But then vote to defund your public schools.

Schools! Do you see any school buildings? Are they boarded up? Are the windows covered with bars? If the schools look like prisons, you are over there. Wait. Can you tell the school from a prison? So don't look for a school. Look for a building that looks like a prison. Then you are definitely over there.

Get off the bus. Make sure the expression on your face is one of quiet resignation. Don't look like a tourist, refreshed, like you're looking for pleasure. Look worn, tired, defeated. Nod at the people you pass, show respect. You feel like you are finally seen.

Walk around. See people who look like you.

Buy a beef patty and ginger beer from the carryout spot. Complain to the clerk.

"It's always something," you say, summing up all your grief.

"It is indeed,"she says back, empathizing without having to know any specifics.

And then you laugh together for no particular reason.

Get a can of fruit punch from the corner store. And some chips. Browse the beauty-supply store.

Get back on the bus going in the opposite direction.

Because you are a tourist.

Lolly Bowean is a Chicago-based writer and 2017 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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