Why You Have No Reason to Fear Poor Neighborhoods

Poor neighborhoodI live in a poor neighborhood — though my husband and I live comfortably in a lovely apartment.

If you’ve been following the TRY THIS blog for a while, you’ve already read a few stories that describe this neighborhood.

Picture of a Poor Neighborhood

There are dozens of big apartment buildings that punctuate the city blocks, providing subsidized apartments to people who make little enough to qualify to live there. And that’s not very much.

Over the years, this neighborhood has been home to some of the city’s most violent gangs.

There is trash on the streets. And like much of New York City, garbage piles up on the sidewalks until on Tuesdays and Fridays the trash collectors make their wee hour rounds up one block and down another.

Little by little, my neighborhood is changing. People like me with more resources and more options are starting to move in.

But poverty is still far more visible than wealth. Our corner cafe is a Dunkin Donuts, not a Starbucks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in this neighborhood. It’s super convenient and my money buys me more space. But even more important are the lessons I learn about people and life and spirit that I wouldn’t learn if I lived in a wealthier community.

Your Fears are Largely Unfounded

Recently, a friend was coming to New York for a business meeting. I invited her up for dinner. Her response took me aback.

“I’m going to be dressed up in my best clothes and gold jewelry,” she said, “And I’m afraid to walk through your neighborhood.”

I understood her concern. It’s easy to imagine that people who are poor want your riches and that they’re on the lookout for rich folks to rob.

But that’s not the reality.

The truth is that the poor people who live in my neighborhood are focused on their own lives.

They’re trying to get through each day with enough to eat, with decent care for their children and with a roof over their heads. They really don’t care one way or another for the random woman dressed differently walking down the street.

Fashion Ralph Lauren Fall 2010They don’t want her jewelry.

They don’t want her cell phone.

They don’t want her expensive St. John jacket.

They don’t care a fig for her elegant leather briefcase.

And they don’t want trouble.

They just want to get through the day unscathed.

My friend’s fancy clothing and jewelry, while they mean something in my friend’s social group, aren’t alluring to the people in my neighborhood. They’re just a bit out of place.

Your Prized Possessions Don’t Matter

It’s easy to believe that people want what you have and that poorer folks will do almost anything to get it. But for the most part, people are much more interested in their own lives than they are in yours.

Your trappings of wealth don’t convey the same status to people who are either poorer or richer than you.

My felon friend, Clemetin, doesn’t want my husband’s expensive cashmere sweater. He wants the things that are symbols of status in his own community, not ours. He might covet Nike Airs or a particular kind of gold chain necklace, but a V-neck cashmere sweater? I don’t think so.

So when my friend walks from the subway stop to my place, she doesn’t have to worry about being mugged. If she has to worry at all, it’s only about being appearing a little bit out of place.

And that’s an important lesson that all of us who are better off can learn. While people who are less well off might notice you in your fancy trappings, they’re really not likely to care about them half as much as you do.

TryTry ThisThis

Notice What Conveys Social Status

The next time you are among people who are richer or poorer than you are, pay close attention to the trappings of status and to your own feelings about them. Do you covet them? Or do you just notice them? Would those markers of status fit into your world? Would you feel comfortable with them?

Have you ever felt afraid while walking through a poor neighborhood? What scares you and why?

Share your story in the comments.

  • I love this post, Andrea. Especially this comment: “even more important are the lessons I learn about people and life and spirit that I wouldn’t learn if I lived in a wealthier community.”

    May I tell you about my current home? When my former husband and I decided many years ago to move out of the city of Philadelphia to a better school system, I began house-hunting. When the realtor drove me to the home we eventually bought, I noticed that he took a very circuitous route. It wasn’t the first time I had had a realtor take great care to drive AROUND poor neighborhoods. I do find it offensive though — that automatic assumption that I wouldn’t want to live in or near a predominantly black neighborhood. Of course, if they knew me better, they’d know that I prefer to live in mixed neighborhoods, and have most of my life. While I moved out to the mainline area for the school district, I settled in the most diverse town along the mainline. That diversity is what drew me to Ardmore — and one of the things I most appreciate about it.

    This topic goes far deeper than a discussion of ‘poor neighborhoods.’ It goes to the very real discussion about race in this country that we should be having but are not.

    • Thanks Pam. I’m so pleased that you read these. Race is such a complicated topic and so many people live in neighborhoods where they almost never come in contact with people of a different color and socio economic group. It’s very hard to really talk about these subjects with people who have no contact.

  • Lorri

    I happen to prefer Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks!

    • Hey Lorri, I must confess that I too prefer Dunkin Donuts! Can’t resist those French Crullers! And the coffee is always good. Our Dunkin Donuts is across the street from the police precinct and I suspect it adds to the beefy appearance of many of the police men and women! 😉

  • Sawyer Davis

    There is a sense of community in poor neighborhoods that is seems that you can not get anywhere else. Great post

    • Sawyer Davis


    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks Sawyer. I agree with you. There’s a liveliness and energy that wealthy suburban neighborhoods sure don’t have!

  • Melissa Stump

    I just came about this article. I know it is kind of old but I am looking for a way out of my poor neighborhood. Problem is… I am poor and can’t afford a way out. Last summer a neighbor was shot and killed across the street. We heard the pops and laid low until the cops came. Two months ago someone unloaded an entire clip into the house directly across the street from mine. Last night was the worst experience yet. We saw that there were about 12 police cruisers and other emergency vehicles on my street. Looking out one window we saw a man being arrested. My front door was open and our security screen door was closed. My dog likes to stand in the open door and bark at everything. When I went to pick her up I saw it. Directly on my neighbor’s tree lawn was the body of a 24 year old man who was dead from a gunshot wound to the neck. He was five steps away from my front porch. Crime scene tape was tied around the side of my porch and tied to the tree on the lawn across the street. I happened to catch this as it was unfolding. My nine year old heard the pops and knew exactly what it was. This is no way for anyone to live. I guess my point is don’t kid yourself. You may feel safe in your neighborhood but your life is never in your hands. Living here for six years… I would be afraid too if I were your friend.