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When You Leave The Ghetto, Don't Bring It With You

NBA player Gilbert Arenas brings a gun to an NBA locker room. NBA player Ron Artest lets his pit bulls run wild and free in Loomis, California while playing for the Sacramento Kings. NFL player Michael Vick did time for fighting dogs. And NFL player Plaxico Burress is doing time for shooting his damn self.

What do all these men have in common? BMNB would say an inability to make a profound paradigm shift. I’m less eloquent than BMNB is, so I’ll say it differently: The inability to leave the ghetto behind.

Yes, call me saditty, bourgie, elitist, stuck-up, whatever. I don’t care. Until you’ve had a tweaker ruin your Thanksgiving turkey, you don’t even know (more on that later), and I’m not trying to hear you.

Living in Western Placer County, my husband and I continue to hear stories from folks like us who had to flee “those who can’t leave the ghetto behind.” You know these people, and they come in all races. In our case, we had returned to Sacramento in 2004 and 2005, respectively, and we were trying to wait out the housing market because, well, we’re cheap and people we respected told us to just wait, that this was a housing bubble just like the tech bubble, and it would burst. In the meantime, we decided to rent a home in the area where I really wanted to buy: Elk Grove, California.

Elk Grove was touted as one of the fastest growing cities during the housing boom. Here’s why: San Francisco Bay Area homes have always been more expensive than Sacramento area homes on average, no matter where those Bay Area homes were located. Elk Grove, a formerly sleepy bedroom suburb and, before that, a dairy farming community, was undergoing a construction boom. The newly constructed houses built in Elk Grove in the run-up to the housing bubble were initially priced for the lower-priced Sacramento market, not the Bay Area market. Result? Folks in the ghetto in the Bay Area were able to sell their homes and buy one, and sometimes two, new homes in Elk Grove. Some of them lived in the homes, some rented them out. And many of them brought the ghetto with them. As the boom roared on, even folks in the ghetto in South Sacramento, with the assistance of shady lenders and real estate agents, were able to buy newly constructed homes costing ten times or more than annual salaries. BMNB and I didn’t know this when we rented a newly constructed home in Elk Grove in 2005 and again in 2007. We were foolish enough to believe that new construction could not equal ghetto. Well, it can. We found out the hard way.

What do I mean by “ghetto” and “bringing the ghetto with you”? Well, here are some examples:

1) Entertaining in the garage with the garage door open. We would leave for work and see our neighbors across the street playing cards in the garage with the garage door open. We would come home from work and see our neighbors across the street playing cards in the garage with the garage door open. I thought that’s what family rooms are for. Hell, I thought jobs were for getting out of the house Monday through Friday. What do I know?

2) Group homes. Our neighbors who lived diagonally across the street from the first house we rented operated a group home. We didn’t know that when we moved in. One of the group home monitors got arrested for possession of marijuana and suspected abuse of a minor. But when he got out he was just as friendly, explaining to me that he had “been away” for a while. Yeah, right. Like I couldn’t read the article in the newspaper that had his mug shot. When your neighbor appears in the paper in a mug shot, your neighborhood is ghetto.

3) Cinderblock fences, wrought-iron rolling gates, and other forms of “mammy-made” landscaping. It is beyond me why people who buy or live in brand-new homes seek to “upgrade” the landscaping with their own undeniably home-made upgrades. When I see the cinderblock being dumped in the driveway, the wrought-iron gates installed to roll across the driveway, and the six-foot tall water fountains plunked down in the center of a lawn that’s 7 x 10 feet, I just want to shake people. Oh, and that 3-foot tall statute of the Virgen de Guadalupe on your front lawn that you light up from the bottom at night? That’s ghetto, too. Yes, I said it. Even the Virgin Mary can be ghetto under the right circumstances.

4) Kitchens in your garage. In Elk Grove, not only did folks entertain in their garages, but they installed kitchens in their garages. Why? So the smell of curry wouldn’t get into the interior walls of their houses. I’m sorry, but a kitchen in your garage is ghetto, period. I don’t care what race or ethnicity you are.

5) Partying all night – on a weeknight. This was usually a renter phenomenon. The president of our neighborhood association routinely fielded complaints about this. I would tell her, “They’re renters. No one who owns and works is going to party until 4 am on a weeknight.” She thought I was stereotyping people. I wasn’t. I would routinely go to our local library, pull the tax assessor’s rolls, and find out that the owner of the afflicted home didn’t live in the home but instead lived in either San Jose or Vallejo. And from the looks of things, they were renting to any warm body with a Section 8 voucher. Voila! Tenants who don’t have to go to work in the morning and don’t give a damn if you do.

6) Exotic exterior paint colors. Again, I’m at a loss as to why people who buy a new home choose to make theirs “stand out” by painting it purple, yellow or pink in a sea of beiges, taupes, sages, mushrooms, and the like. If you don’t see any electric pink houses on the block, why you gotta be the first one to paint yours that color? Oh, because you just couldn’t leave the ghetto behind. That would have been too much like right.

7) Juvenile delinquents. In Elk Grove, a member of the police department warned me not to buy a house where I was living. I asked why. Here’s his explanation: “Right now, it all seems fine and good because these kids are young. But most of their parents work in the Bay Area and don’t get home until late at night. Once these kids become older and more mobile and continue to be unsupervised, they’re just juvenile delinquents waiting to happen. There’s going to be a crime wave coming when these kids get older, and you don’t want to try to sell your house during a crime wave.” Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. And then there were the well-meaning grandparents who thought that, by moving out of the ghetto, they would help their delinquent grandchildren to straighten up and fly right. Wrong. When they brought their delinquent gang banger grandchildren with them to the suburbs, they just brought the ghetto with them.

BMNB was particularly affected by the influx of ghetto youth in Elk Grove. On weekdays, BMNB is suited and booted and looks like, well, a Secret Service agent. On weekends, it’s another story. His favorite gear is sweatshirts, athletic shoes, jeans, and a puffy ski jacket. It doesn’t help that he looks like he’s in his mid- to late twenties. Oh, and he’s black. You can see where this is going. Needless to say, he got tons of hard stares from and was bumped into several times by young men with earrings, tons of bling, and tattoos on their necks and in their scalps. Having grown up around military families, he had no clue as to what this was about. My brother finally had to break it to him: “They’re gang bangers, and they want to know what set you’re down with.” It was about that time that BMNB decided we had to go, before he killed someone. It was that bad.

And my favorite example of bringing the ghetto with you?

8) Pit bulls. If ever there were a mascot of the ghetto, the venerable and often abused pit bull would be it. One of our neighbors in the second Elk Grove house we rented not only owned them, but bred them and kept them kenneled in his garage. One day, one of his females who had just had puppies got out and charged my elderly Labrador Retriever. Well, my dog is not only old, but evil, having attacked a Doberman Pinscher two days after I got her from the shelter. She did not back down, and there I was, rolling around on the ground trying to get between my dog and the pit bull. The owner came out and apologized profusely, but I was madder than a hornet: “You’re a pit bull owner. You can’t make this kind of mistake. This is unacceptable.” And, after apologizing, he looked at me like I was from another planet, like it was unacceptable to complain about pit bulls.

All of these things happened to us or near us in Elk Grove. For the life of me I could not understand why folks would move to the suburbs only to bring the ghetto with them.

If you either live in the ghetto or live among “those who can’t leave the ghetto behind,” at some point, if you have any common sense or just a desire to live peacefully, you have an epiphany when you realize it’s time to go. Hell, there should be a rite of passage called “fleeing the ghetto.” My first “flee the ghetto” epiphany happened when I moved back to Sacramento in 2004 and was living with my sister in the house I had grown up in. My nephew’s half-brother came to the door saying he was being chased by gang bangers and needed to hide. I was roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving at the time. It took us a while to figure out that: 1) he was high on meth; 2) he was hallucinating; and 3) he had a hammer in his pocket. As he hid in the bathroom, I called the police and warned them we had a “5150” on our hands. The police came, made my sister and I leave the house, would not let me back in to finish basting my turkey, and then threatened to taser the young man. Great. When all was said and done, I ended up with a burnt turkey and the guilt of turning over another brother to the criminal justice system.

I later sat my sister down and told her I was moving out and to Elk Grove. “Why?,” she asked me. I looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “You can live ghetto if you want to, but I’m not going to. I’m outta here. I’m not used to living like this. I’m not used to having tweakers ruin my Thanksgiving turkey.” Within a month I had rented a newly constructed home in Elk Grove with BMNB. Within six months, my sister was living with me. Within a year, she bought, along with another of my sisters, a home in a gated community in Elk Grove. I hear once you go gated, you never go back.

As for BMNB and me, we bought the best house we could in an HOA-controlled neighborhood the hell away from Sacramento County. We’re more than willing to give up a few freedoms to have another layer of governance between us and our neighbors to make sure our neighbors can’t bring the ghetto with them. And true, although money can’t buy happiness, it can buy a certain amount of peace if you can afford to buy in a neighborhood where those who can’t leave the ghetto behind can’t afford to buy. But even that’s no guarantee, as I’m sure Plaxico Burress and the like can afford to live anywhere they want.

But Plaxico, Gilbert, Michael and Ron, do some of us a favor: When you move into our neighborhoods, don’t bring the ghetto with you.

And would the last person leaving the ghetto remember to feed the pit bull and call the SPCA to come get it?


Anonymous said…
Get used to moving. Roseville is not taht much better than Elk Grove.
Jim said…
Good article. Very indicative of what's happening in that whole region, not just "Da Grove." Thug-life seems to be an incurable cancer.

It would be good to specify what BMNB stands for, though.
Legalette said…
I love your blog, as a law student I live vicariously through your writing. I too live in EG and had the same thoughts as you have written. Write on sister, write on!
Thanks, Legalette! I've got a special place in my heart for law students, so please keep on keepin' on!
Anonymous said…
Please add number 11 - barbecuing or having a birthday party on your front lawn! Why do folks find it necessary to show your neighbors your family's ignorance? That's what backyards are for and it allows family secrets to remain within the family. Better yet, spend the money and take the child somewhere of their choice; don't have a party for the neighbors so they can see how much you "love" your child as they drive around in those motorized jeeps, Barbie cars, etc.
Anonymous said…
OMgoodness... I looooooooove your blog... As a New England White gal who has a lot of Black girlfriends mostly who grew up in the Ghetto in Oakland, you are a hoot and right on it with this blog! I can't wait to show my friends your blog! Really witty and right on it. This should be a book! I am dying laughing because you are so not uppity as truthful!
Thank you so very much and Happy New Year! I am indeed working on the book and will let everyone know when it's finished!
Michelle Norsworthy said…
Why would you enable comment moderation? So you can blog your opinion freely, but our comments are censored? I enjoy reading your blogs, and feel that you are a highly talented writer with good ideas - BUT - I don't agree with what you have to say about pit bulls. Just because some ghetto people choose to abuse them and use them as signs of "power" please don't blame it on the breed. They are a powerful, regal breed, to be treated with love and respect. Our family dog is the sweetest, kindest, most gentle dog I have ever come in contact with, and I have never had a bad experience with pitbulls in my area where they are raised in good homes, ranches, and trained to help disabled children. But then again, I'm white and I've never lived in the ghetto. You would know.

I enable comment moderation to avoid spam and uncivil discourse. I think that if you were to look at the comments on my blog, I have included comments that did not agree with what I've written. The one time I did refuse to post a comment, I provided an explanation as to why. But at the end of the day, it's my blog and I can moderate all I want to. I'm all for engaged, spirited discussion, and I'd like to believe I've supported it on my blog without regard to viewpoint, as long as the comments are expressed in a civil manner.

True, my experience with pit bulls is different than yours, and my experience has been that pit bulls are used as some kind of weird status symbol of toughness instead of being allowed to be the revered family pets every dog deserves to be. But that's MY experience. Maybe you should blog about your experience with pit bulls and tell your experience. I'm always encouraging the proliferation of new and different voices in the blogosphere.

Thanks for commenting.
Anonymous said…
Great article...Thank you.
Jan said…
I'm glad you posted about your experience with the pit bulls. I grew up in East Oakland and have been around the Bay Area. I used to hate pitbulls, rottweilers, etc because they were always acting so tough. Of course I learned that the ones who were "bad" were the ones who simply had bad owners.

Like one of the other commenters said, the pitbulls I've met have been so playful and sweet.

I now live an upper middle-class lifestyle in Portland, Oregon. I am fortunate and grateful to live in the city and not the suburbs. Speaking of which, I think many people (not including myself because I was more upwardly mobile) who "leave the ghetto" actually don't go to the suburbs to get away, but instead go because they are displaced and can no longer afford to live in the cities. It's pretty sad.

I have a different view of suburbs. I see suburbs (unless they're ridiculously expensive like Palo Alto or Lake Oswego) as places where the less fortunate have to go due to gentrification.

And I don't think painting your house a bright color is bad. There are so many bright colored houses in our neighborhood (then again I live in a place where the homes are expensive, old craftsman homes and not housing development homes).

But I agree about the garage thing. It never made sense to me why people did that. Sure they might want air, but it's just bad aesthetically. If they have a garage, they probably have a backyard or a deck. I could never hang out in someone's garage. Seriously, wth?
Carrie P said…
Like, Er my Gawd. I am laughing so hard that I think I just peed a little. As a white girl who just left a Seattle ghetto, I can totally relate.

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