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Bad neighborhoods

Carrie Allan, senior editorial director for The HSUS, examines the reality and the mythology surrounding “Scary Neighborhoods” in this country and the responsibility of animal welfare groups.

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How well do you really know your local "scary place" and the people who live there?

Pet lovers, heads up: In my years reporting about animal welfare in the U.S., it’s come to my attention that there are some very scary places pocketed away inside our country.

You know the places I’m talking about. You probably have one nearby. You grew up hearing about it, from your parents, the news, the movies: the East Side, the South Side, north of Broad, Vermont Avenue, Sunnyside, Bed Stuy, Boyle Heights, Liberty City, East St. Louis, West Baltimore, Camden, East Oakland, the Cass Corridor.

Where’s your nearest “scary place”? How often have you been there?

Growing up in an affluent suburb of Washington D.C.—in a school that had a fair number of foreign diplomats’ kids, but was pretty middle-class and white overall—our Scary Place was Washington D.C. itself, especially Anacostia.

If you had asked me in high school WHY people (by which I would have meant “people I know,” by which I meant “mostly middle-class suburban white people”) didn’t go to Anacostia, I probably would have offered some vague, rambly information about how drug dealers lived there. I probably pictured them all living in a house together, with cabinets full of needles and scary powders, just waiting eagerly for kids like me to cross the river so they could stuff us with drugs.

(These days, I’m mostly scared of Washington because it’s where Congress is. But I digress.)

In high school, if you’d asked me about Anacostia, I would probably not have had the knowledge to say, “Well, Anacostia has some issues with crime, but also, many of the people I interact with probably think of it as scary because it’s a poorer, largely black neighborhood. Also, I should probably mention, no one I know has ever actually been there.”

Let’s back up for a second, gentle reader, and take stock: I’m talking to you pretty presumptuously. After all, what if you’re from one of those so-called scary neighborhoods? What if you’ve spent your whole life hearing your hometown, your neighborhood, described in tones of fear, judgment, pity, embarrassment, and a tsk-tsk scolding quality by people who’ve never bothered to visit?

Detroit has been living with that, with the collective weight of judgments and analysis for a long, long time now. In some ways, the city has become the sample “bad neighborhood” for the whole country—a place alternately pitied, feared and analyzed in order to investigate larger societal issues of economic and industrial decline, difficult race relations, class issues, and more.

If I were from Detroit, I think I’d be pretty sick of this. If I were from Detroit, I’d know it from the inside, know my house and my family and my pets and my neighbors and their pets and kids. I’d know more than statistics about unemployment and crime. I’d probably know who got divorced last year and who’s lost their jobs and are really struggling. I’d know about where the dealers hang out but also about the house with the teacher who tutors neighborhood kids for free after school, the tiny market that’s been there for years, the police who really care about the neighborhood and the ones who just seem to throw their weight around. If I were from Detroit (or one of the other thousands of “Scary Neighborhoods” around the country), I’d see it as more than a collection of problems to address. Once you’ve lived in a place—been happy in it, bored in it, sad in it, have had a beer in it and hung out with friends in it—it’s exhausting how whenever you leave your neighborhood, you get regular reminders of the negative way other people see it—and perhaps, of how they see you.

Having visited Detroit to report on the work Pets for Life is doing there, I was reminded of all the ways we build up mythology about places we don’t know. Yes, I saw plenty of urban blight. Yes, there are neighborhoods in the city that have problems with crime. Several of the zip codes where Pets for Life works in Detroit are among the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, according to crime stats. What these crime stats fail to mention, of course, is all the people who live there who are just regular people, dealing with the poverty and crime around them in whatever ways they can, helping each other and doing their best to just get through the day. Many of the people living in the service deserts where PFL works are elderly, dealing with health or disability issues, or coping with other challenges. They, and their pets, call these “scary neighborhoods” home. And those who have the capacity are often actively working to improve their communities, in big ways and small.

In visiting and reading about the challenges facing underserved communities over the years, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions, like:

  • If an animal shelter is located in between a so-called “good part of town” and a so-called “bad part of town,” but almost all of its adopters and clients are from the “good part of town,” what does that say about how well the shelter is reaching its community?
  • If there is a noticeable difference between how most of an organization’s staff look, or what language they speak, and the look and language of parts of the community the organization serves, what challenges does that create? How can those challenges be met proactively? Shouldn’t an organization take steps to recruit people from among the residents of the place it serves, to look like its community?
  • While small strides in diversity have been made, the animal welfare movement has remained predominantly white. Meanwhile, in the U.S., income disparity between white families and black or Latino families has continued to increase. Given how detailed and specific some groups’ adoption requirements are—a fenced yard, a collaborative landlord, an owner who is home a lot during the day, references from a veterinarian—are some organizations essentially creating a paradigm in which pet ownership is a privilege reserved mostly for the middle class and above? And given the intersectionality of class with race, does that threaten to gradually push it toward a privilege mostly for affluent white people?

I suspect hardly anyone in our movement would advocate for the direction above—and yet some of the advocates for strict, specific adoption criteria seem to me to be sticking a big toe into that very dangerous water.

Of course, animal welfare groups cannot shoulder the burden of fixing the massive problem of income inequality along with fixing cats and dogs—but what responsibilities do we have to acknowledge and respond to those realities in our communities?

I hope you’ll read our story about Pets for Life’s work in Detroit, and get a sense of the people who live there and are trying to make a difference for both people and animals. And then I hope you’ll give some thought to where your own local “scary places” are, about what makes them scary, and about how well you really know them and the people who live there. They might turn out to be just where your organization needs to go.

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About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?