When I first moved to Boston's South End two years ago, I was absolutely delighted by the prospect of a multicultural neighborhood in Boston. I grew up in Philadelphia, which, after living in Boston for 8 years, seemed like the bastion of diversity. I know that’s not entirely true, but nevertheless one can enter a nice downtown restaurant without being “the only one”.
Here in Boston, the landscape is a bit different. At BU, I was one of about 780 African-American undergrads (out of, say, 15,000?). Spotting a Black person the B line is a feat unto itself. And the neighborhoods… man oh man, the neighborhoods… they’re just so, segregated. North End = Italian. Southie = Irish. Beacon Hill = Rich and White. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that most large cities boast proud pockets of different cultural groups. That’s just a product of American history. But the Little Italy’s and Chinatowns are balanced out by thriving diverse middle-class neighborhoods. And an integrated downtown area, where all can come to enjoy the city.
Not here. You might see a bunch of Black kids laughing it up on the streets of Downtown Crossing, but try spotting a well-to-do Black family dining at Ivy. You might ride the Silver Line with African-Americans and Asians and Latinos, but you’d never see the same mix at the Starbucks just outside the bus’ doors. I know that there are tons of Black people in Boston, but somehow they're all living in one of three neighborhoods, located at the end of the subway lines. The “scary” neighborhoods.
This diversity problem is so bad that my (mostly white) group of friends remark every time they visit: “Okay, are we in the Twilight Zone? Where are all the Black people in this city?” People might think it’s entirely within reason for a large American city to be so segregated, but I’m here to tell you, IT’S NOT NORMAL!
So this is why I was so psyched to find the South End. At first glance, the neighborhood does appear to be incredibly diverse.
But when I look closer, I can see that the races aren’t mixing. They’re just overlapping. Subsidized housing bumps into the Villa Victoria, which bumps into 6 million dollar condos, which bump into Chinatown. Instead of an orchestral melody that one might find in Philly’s Mount Airy, the South End often grates at my ears like a clashing cacophony of sounds.
I often wonder whether the South End set-up is an optimal first step towards a more diverse Boston. Perhaps the answer is yes. After all, how can we learn more about each other without co-existing? But I also fear that smashing groups of people together who share no common lifestyle threads might create and/or deepen racial stereotypes, prejudices and anger. Like the “I wish those Project kids would quit it with the freaking firecrackers!” or “Why do these Chinese people always cut the bus line!” anger, which has sneaked up on me from time to time.
In truth, the fact that these kinds of thoughts even deign to creep into my mind (because I fancy myself quite culturally-aware and open) absolutely terrifies me, and also makes me wonder if others aren’t plagued with the same kinds of bitter thoughts. And if they are, well that can’t be a tasty ingredient for the melting pot.