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How to be a white neighbor in a black neighborhood

Don’t come in with a savior mentality hitched to your moving truck. Don’t start your own block club; join the existing one.

A dancer performs at a Howard University Homecoming celebration in Washington D.C. on Oct. 11.
When she returned to Howard University in Washington D.C. for homecoming this month, Natalie Moore writes, she was struck by the tensions of gentrification. Her advice: Enjoy homecoming, don’t steal black joy. Here, a dancer performs at a Howard University Homecoming celebration on Oct. 11.
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Well-meaning white people often ask me how they can be a good neighbor if they move into a black or Latino neighborhood.

I give simple advice: be a good neighbor.

That means don’t come in with a savior mentality hitched to your moving truck. Don’t start your own block club or community organization; join the existing one. Smile and say good morning to your neighbors. Don’t write off the neighborhood schools. Understand the cultural fabric of the new place you call home. Don’t call the police.

In the clearest terms, don’t be a colonizer.

As demographic patterns shift in Chicago and segregation dissipates in some communities, cultural clashes are inevitable. With thoughtfulness and respect, neighbors can forge a different way forward. A scenario where minor disputes don’t escalate into a situation where long-time residents feel marginalized. Where neighborhood listservs don’t demonize children for being loud. Where safety talk isn’t cloaked in racism.

I also like to give an example of what not to be — Washington, D.C., a city where gentrification acts as pencil eraser to black folk.

I love D.C. I attended Howard University, an illustrious Historically Black College, in the 1990s, and since I graduated the physical and demographic landscape has starkly transformed. The surrounding neighborhood is no longer all black. Glassy high-rises form a perimeter around the campus.

I’m not here to debate the housing policies or actions of political and private sector players. I’m here to say white neighbors need to do better. Chicago, learn a lesson from their ridiculous behavior.

Art is often a bridge to building community. But not in D.C., where a native musical form is seen as “other.”

Go-Go is the soundtrack and heartbeat of black Washington. It’s a sub-genre of funk music that reverberates with African drums and call-and-response. Go-Go music is played live, a symphony of horns, keyboards and singers remixing popular R&B and hip-hop tracks.

Earlier this year, a cell phone store near Howard, which has played Go-Go music on the corner for decades, got a demand from nearby luxury apartment dwellers. Stop playing the music. Too noisy, they said. But Go-Go lovers and those resisting gentrification quickly organized, refusing to be complicit in silencing black culture. A petition started and birthed #DontMuteDC. The cell phone store’s parent company said the music could play on.

The kerfuffle represented anti-black tensions and aggressions playing out for years in the neighborhood. Imagine if new white neighbors instructed a business to stop playing house music — Chicago’s black soundtrack — on 75th Street or Stony Island. Absurd.

This past weekend, I reveled at Howard’s homecoming, a joyous rapturous occasion. Before Saturday’s football game, the entire week is electric — parties, happy hours, laughter on the streets, concerts.

On Friday night, two alumni friends who live near campus hosted a party in their Victorian home, as they’ve done for 19 years. A Go-Go band jammed in their dining room. A red #DontMuteDC framed poster conspicuously hung on the wall.

The police showed up. Officers noted multiple complaints. Nothing untoward happened; the band ended at 11 p.m. as the police pulled up.

I shudder as I think what the scenario could’ve spiraled into.

Homecoming is inconvenient. Traffic is bad. Parking is scarce. But so what? Newcomers to the neighborhood who complain about homecoming, as they have done on listservs, need to adapt. When white people move near Howard, they must remember they chose to live in essentially a mini-college town.

Earlier this year, a white D.C. resident suggested that Howard should move its campus after students complained that the yard — the university’s common area — was being used as a neighborhood dog park. Howard has been at this location since 1867. Some behaviors are worse than gentrification.

White residents could take their families to the child-friendly homecoming parade on Saturday morning. They could learn about the history of the university and impart the importance of Howard to their families. Enjoy homecoming, don’t steal black joy. If it’s too much, they could Airbnb their home to make some money and avoid homecoming altogether.

Cities are messy, noisy and complex. Too many people desire a sterile urban-suburban experience. So when I’m asked by those well-meaning white people here in Chicago what they can do, I use Washington, D.C. and Howard as an example.

Don’t be that neighbor.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org

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