Snooping, Snapping, and Cynicism

Michelle and I stood alone in a sunny, open alley surrounded by a cartel of cats, a V.F.W. post, an auto shop, and an overgrown field. Overhead were power lines and a blue sky strewn with white paint strokes as she spoke to a man from Habitat International on the phone about NRI’s progress in Milo-Grogan. While she interviewed, I continued placing the last of the doorhangers on homes in the only remaining sector of the neighborhood. With the help of Boys &  Girls Club volunteers and Michelle’s son Rory, nearly every home in Milo-Grogan received a doorhanger inviting them to come to our first community meeting. I warily approached a solitary home in a sea of industrial enterprises with overgrown bushes blockading the front steps and a “BEWARE OF CATS” sign hung on the crooked chain link fence. Lounging in the shade of the shrubbery were about five skin-and-bone felines, silently staring at my unfamiliar figure. I turned around and looked at Michelle with a face of uncertainty and apprehension. Talking away, she waved me forward. I skulked around the bushes to the other side of the entryway and spotted a couple more cats prowling around the perimeter. Using my better judgment, and my fear of feral alley cats, I did not place a doorhanger here. I am banking that one of the cats will drag a littered doorhanger to the home and the occupants will end up at the meeting.

This morning I took yet another tour of the neighborhood after Michelle dispatched a photography mission to me. The man from International requested some pictures of our NRI community. A little unclear on what kind of pictures I should be taking, I seized the chance for some solo urban exploration on a quiet and cool summer morning. There are reasons that Milo-Grogan was selected as our NRI neighborhood. We could have chosen from an array of neighborhoods in Columbus. Milo-Grogan, however, was the first neighborhood in which the Columbus affiliate built homes. This had some bearing on the decision to choose Milo. This was also a good choice because Milo-Grogan seems to be one of the more forgotten neighborhoods of Columbus. I’ve asked people in the neighborhood about the recognition of Milo, and the response usually conveys that there is little outside knowledge of Milo-Grogan as a cohesive community.

Back to the pictures–I was not sure what elements of the neighborhood these photographs were supposed to showcase. It ss simple to take unflattering (albeit oddly artistic) pictures of dilapidated structures on overgrown lots. We know the problems that Milo faces, and we are sick of reiterating them. In line with the spectacular model of Asset-Based Community Development that NRI espouses, I tried to snap some pictures of positive things in the neighborhood. The most obvious assets to Milo-Grogan are the Boys & Girls Club, the Milo-Grogan Recreation Center, numerous churches, and the devoted residents. While there are many vacant and littered lawns, there are clearly homeowners who strive to maintain aesthetic perfection. After I took approximately 50 pictures of collapsing homes and vacant parcels, I realized the error of my ways. The difficult thing about taking pictures of well-kept homes, however, was that many people were out in the lawn working on them. Driving by snapping photos from the car definitely makes me feel like a super-creep. My innocent smile did not seem to remedy the situation, either.

Another creeper move: try pulling up to the neighborhood park, stopping the car, and taking pictures of children playing on the playground. For this reason, my pictures of the park are from a considerably remote vantage point, as I tried to be as discreet as my shiny red hatchback allows. I am almost positive I have driven down every street in Milo-Grogan now, which gives me some confidence about my work in the neighborhood.

I am straddling a fine line of community development. My reception is crucial. When I talk to people who live in the community, I need to know where they live. If someone says, “I live by the old schoolhouse on Third,” I need to know exactly where that is. Out there in the political and social change universe of ideas is a negative opinion of the bumbling do-gooder who is deeply disconnected from the target demographic. Ofttimes a right-wing caricature of liberal efforts at urban development and minority affairs casts people in my position as scientists studying rats in a cage.

I do not want to be that scientist. I do not want to be that white boy looking down my nose with one nostril of compassion and one of separation. Is there an appropriate space for me? My history precludes the possibility of organic community development. Any way I spin it, anywhere I live in the present or the future, I am a product of Dublin, Ohio. When people in the neighborhood ask me where I went to high school (which has happened), I have to say Dublin Coffman. And speaking the words “Dublin Coffman” to a person who likely had a dearth of academic options and perhaps a less-than-ideal environment for their studies makes me nauseous.

Despite my cynical rendering of ideals, the smiles and hugs I have gotten from Milo-Grogan residents allow me to forge ahead with conviction. From the driver’s seat of my car today I asked an elderly man on Dupont Avenue if he got the doorhanger advertising the community meeting tomorrow. He was a little confused and I continued explaining about Habitat’s initiative in the neighborhood. He realized that he did indeed receive the doorhanger and he was not sure if he would come or not. I explained how valuable his attendance is and he seemed a little more receptive. After I said thank you and told him that I hoped to see him there, he said this:

“Thank you for trying to do something good for the neighborhood.”

And thank you, sir, for making my day summer.

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