Monday, August 24, 2009

There's Battle Lines Bein' Drawn...

Madison is a city where neighborhood associations have long held a great deal of power influence with city hall. On the city’s southwest side, two new groups have sprung up to deal with “change”, but the neighborhood association isn’t taking sides.

One of the new groups, which consists solely of white folks, wants to have a formal “Residents Bill of Rights” and a new “Code of Conduct and Behavior”. That group is holding a meeting Wednesday. The other group, which consists largely of black residents of the neighborhood, is holding a picnic at Elver Park Saturday.

The man who heads the latter group, Jim Monroe, is a minister at True Worshippers Community Church. He says instead of constantly looking for the differences between us, we ought to spend a little more time identifying the similarities. He thinks a few folks from the white group ought to sit down with a few folks from his group, and have a talk.

There are many euphemisms for what’s been happening on the southwest side for the past couple decades. Some call it a “neighborhood in transition”. I guess that means now, you don’t see all white faces in the neighborhood.

These new faces aren’t just Madisonians who moved to a different part of town. Some are, but quite a few are from Milwaukee and Chicago. And there’s been an increase in low-level crime the past few years. A couple months ago in the neighborhood, “Pig” Collins, a 17-year-old boy, became the city’s first murder.

That’s about as serious a crime as can happen, and nobody’s even pretending it should be tolerated as part of the “transition”. But it seems to me that these white folks over there have their undies in a bundle about such trivial matters as underwear. In their proposed “code of conduct and behavior”, they mention specifically their ire about boys who wear their pants well below their waistline, with their undies hanging out.

They’re annoyed that the kids walk down the street instead of the sidewalk, and that they choose to congregate in front of stores in the strip malls. I think a lot of the fear comes from people who have never lived anywhere but in Madison, and they want things to stay just as they always were.

In 1988, I moved here from Los Angeles. We bought a nice home in the Burr Oaks neighborhood from an Italian family. A lot of people at work said “you bought a house THERE? Aren’t you afraid?” At that time, places like Sommerset Circle and Magnolia Lane and Badger Road were just about to make the news. The folks at work thought Burr Oaks was a “tough” neighborhood, the worst in the city.

I told them when I lived in New Orleans, there were neighborhoods were ambulance drivers would refuse to take calls. And that there were places in east L-A where white faces were very much NOT welcome. And that if Burr Oaks was as bad as it got in Madison, they really didn’t have much of a problem.

It’s all relative, I guess. But when it comes down to being annoyed that some young folks choose to wear their pants a different way, and actually putting it in writing in a suggested “code of conduct”, it’s time to take a deep breath, a step back, and take stock of what’s really important.


  1. Tim Morrissey is dead wrong when he writes: "In their proposed “code of conduct and behavior”, they mention specifically their ire about boys who wear their pants well below their waistline, with their undies hanging out."

    It is not mentioned specifically nor is it mentioned implicitly. The documents are brief and clearly worded. It is obvious you have not read either. You are getting your mis-impression from Lisa Veldran's spurious comment in Saturday's State Journal, as intended.

    Nor is it the case that our problems are mostly jaywalking except for the one murder, which Morrissey paints as clearly an aberration. We've had everything in between, including multiple shootings, heroin dens, home invasions, and stick-ups. That Meadowood may not yet be as bad as the non-tourist sections of New Orleans or Los Angeles is cold comfort, Tim.

    Mind if we try to prevent it from becoming that?

  2. News, by and large, is the unusual, the unexpected. Every community --- certainly every society --- has a background level of misbehavior. Some of it can be quite serious; other of it scales off to the petty. The importance we attach to events tends to be in inverse proportion to their rarity: The fewer the incidents, the bigger each one seems.

    Spend a minute thinking about it and the “code of conduct” idea looks pretty silly. There’s a desperate naiveté to it. Are a community’s laws not its code of conduct?

    From my vantage in New York City I could relate unpleasant tales of the autocratic bully and crypto-fascist Rudy Giuliani. But his obsessively venal personality and roughshod ways allowed the NYPD to deal with so-called “quality of life” crimes: New York’s version of Il Duce pursued the graffitos and squeegee men and panhandling vagabonds with the vengeance of Javert. Punks who preferred swaggering in the street to walking on the sidewalks quickly revised their attitude --- or they risked spending an inconvenient night in a precinct lockup. Even jaywalkers practicing what had long been regarded as a NYC birthright proceeded to the crosswalks.

    It has been said that a broken window, left unrepaired, invites further deterioration. New York had long suffered from that insidiously quiet decline and conventional political wisdom was that nothing could be done about it. I’m no great fan of Giuliani-grade Democracy, but he did demonstrate that, with community resolve, the neighborhoods of a city of 8 million could be made walkable. City Hall is where the “code of conduct” folk should be directing their concern.

    As it happens, hooligans sporting low-rider britches may, in their way, be assisting the effort toward community order by voluntarily making it less likely they’ll be able to outrun the cops. Here’s an example of what I mean:

  3. Ahh ... the URL mangler busted up the address at the end of my note. Let's try this one, eh?