The Common Good
July-August 1995

The Paradox of City Life

by Karen Lattea | July-August 1995

When I tell people I live in Washington, D.C., a common reply is, "I'm sorry to hear that."

When I tell people I live in Washington, D.C., a common reply is, "I'm sorry to hear that." When a former D.C. paramedic discovered which neighborhood I live in, he didn't bother with condolences, he just told me I was "crazy." Friends responding to my Christmas letter about my experiences in the city wrote back words of comfort. All this has me wondering: Is a decision to live in the city cause for sympathy these days?

Indeed, violence rears its ugly head often on these streets, usually under cover of darkness, and that's what people hear about. And yet neighbors persist in greeting one another, quietly fighting back the fear behind the headlines. Vulnerability and grace walk hand in hand.

Why do I live in the city? Am I just "asking for trouble," as some say? Can I talk about my everyday experiences without promoting the very fear and judgment I seek to dispel?

I live in the city to be a witness against violence and injustice, and to experience firsthand its human and structural dynamics. As a result, diminished dignity and the pressures of poverty are not merely concepts to me. When I stand in long lines at the few grocery stores, where prices are higher than in the suburbs and the food is lower quality, I understand demoralization; when I allow encounters with human tragedy to become part of my prayer life, rather than denying they exist, I understand the paradox of faith as my trust in God deepens. Meanwhile, I have the opportunity to share the satisfaction of organized neighbors who finally closed the crack house around the corner, and I am challenged when one of them offers assistance to those displaced-the same people who had kept him up nights for so long.

I've adopted some protections, or compromises, to minimize the real risks in my neighborhood. I don't live alone, I own a car, I walk at night only in groups, and, most important, I know my neighbors. On days when I'm feeling particularly vulnerable to street harassment, I avoid walking. If I have to park a few blocks away from home late at night, I wake up my housemate to walk with me. If requested, I call friends and family who live elsewhere to let them know I've arrived safely.

At the same time, I take steps to fight my fears, maintain my independence, and enjoy the benefits of city life. I know the stakes of this balance are high. I've watched friends as they try to overcome the violation of being robbed, assaulted, or having their home burglarized. Some do and stay-some don't and move away.

Community and faith are my anchors here. When one of our members was mugged just a few hundred feet ahead of a group of us walking home from a meeting (at which the topic was how we can respond to violence in our neighborhood!), we immediately employed the ideas just spoken: We yelled at the guys who committed the crime, chasing them off our block; we put up fliers announcing that a mugging had occurred; and we became a little more determined and prayerful.

I live in the city by choice and calling. Everyday there are compromises and blessings, but I focus on the latter-the crossing guards who make children their priority every morning and afternoon, the guys hanging out on the corner who notice if I haven't been by lately, the diversity of residents living side by side in just one block.

These are the things that sustain me. Sympathy is not required.

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