Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

The author’s husband, Matthew, walks their boxer-hound mix Martin past a mansion in Savannah’s Ardsley Park neighborhood. Photo by Jenna Bower.

By JENNA BOWER

I took my dog on a reflective walk this morning. I left our house, a recently renovated bungalow standing in contrast to the dilapidated rental properties home to my neighbors, most of whom are black.

Some people have lived here for generations. My husband and I moved into this house two years ago because the rent was affordable and it had a backyard for the dogs. This morning as I set out on my walk, like almost every other morning, I crossed the street from my neighborhood into the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Ardsley Park.

After hundreds of these walks around my and adjoining neighborhoods, I’ve started to notice that no one else seemed to be crossing the street into my neighborhood or vice versa.

Bull Street is just a street in Savannah, Georgia. But if it is just a street, then riddle me this: Why do the people on either side of it not cross to get to the other side? There is a barrier here, and it is reflective of the more significant racial divide we have in America — and have always had.

Gentrification is My White Housing Privilege

My neighborhood is called Bingville. If you ask any Savannah resident where Bingville is, I doubt they would know.

From the stories I’ve gathered from my neighbors, Bingville has been a historically black neighborhood. I have no explanation for the fence with enormous bands of razor wire encasing our backyard. Either someone installed it to keep intruders out, or to keep someone in. Clearly, I have a bleak understanding of where I live.

My white privilege is in having enough economic mobility to move into any neighborhood that I want to live, without having to have a historical understanding of that place or what it means for me as a white person to be living there.

Our landlord, and we, are a part of the gentrifying force of this small neighborhood in Savannah. Or maybe it’s the other way around, or perhaps it’s cyclical. If our names on the lease application had sounded more ethnic, more “black,” would we have been accepted as renters?

My white privilege is in being trusted to be a good renter based on the whiteness of my name on an application and the whiteness of my skin during a home tour.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has student housing units that take up massive swaths of land on Barnard Street, which happens to run directly through the center of our neighborhood. This plays a significant role in the gentrification of this neighborhood as well. Since I moved to Savannah to attend SCAD in the first place, to attend a prestigious graduate program that I could only afford due to the inheritance of generational wealth, that is also my white privilege.

My white privilege is having access to generational wealth that allowed me to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees, debt-free.

A home in the Bingville neighborhood in Savannah, Ga. In the distance is the entrance to Ardsley Park. Photo by Jenna Bower.

Barriers in Crossing From East to West

Many of the streets where I live don’t have sidewalks, which is probably the result of historic city planning that prioritized vehicular traffic over pedestrian safety. Yet after all these years, these streets have not been updated with sidewalks to protect pedestrians. Why is that? Our street is one of the only ones with a sidewalk, and it is a recent addition that is only on one side of the road.

So why would anyone from the east side of Bull Street want to risk their safety by coming to walk on streets with no sidewalks? 

That’s the rational explanation. But there are others. 

The median household income in Ardsley Park is $75,272, and homes for sale range anywhere from $250,000 to over a million dollars. In Bingville, the median household income is $20,774, which is $18,000 lower than the median income in the city of Savannah as a whole. Bingville is 57.5% Black and 30.5% white compared to Ardsley Park – Chatham Crescent, which is 82.8% white and 3.9% black

Culturally, white Americans have been conditioned to view people of color as more dangerous than whites. Of course, the white person wouldn’t cross the road to get to the blacker side. 

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the East to the Westside.

Barriers in Crossing from West to East

In comparison, all of the streets on the east side of Bull Street have sidewalks. They not only have sidewalks but lush green pocket parks where white people can bring dogs to frolic in the joys of this alluring historic city. My husband and I got married in one of these parks a few months ago. I walked in my wedding dress across Bull Street to the park where the ceremony was held. Cars stopped, honked, and waved at me as I hobbled in my high heels across the road.

Why don’t I ever see my neighbors from the West side of Bull Street walking across the street to enjoy these beautiful public spaces? This is probably because underneath the charming Spanish moss dripping with morning dew and gorgeous Live Oaks draped with resurrection ferns, they do not feel safe there.

As a woman, I always bring my largest dog with me on long walks – even through the wealthiest Savannah neighborhoods. In the morning, in the afternoon and at night. I look around at these affluent neighborhoods, and I see safety personified, but I am always on guard.

Whenever a man walks down the sidewalk toward me, I cross the street, whether he’s black or white. And I know when I cross the road away from a black man that he sees my racism in action, and so sometimes I will stay the course to smile and say hello. 

But as a white woman, if anything were to happen to me on one of these residential streets, it’s safe to say that another white neighbor would come to my rescue and call the police.

However, if my black neighbors were to take a leisurely walk across Bull Street into Ardsley Park, I imagine their fear would be much higher than mine. They would get peered at through windows and surveilled by predominantly white homeowners. Some of the more entitled neighbors might question them as they walk through their neighborhood.

They might ask, “Who do you work for?” – mistaking them as gardeners, landscapers, or house cleaners.

They might ask, “What brings you here?” – assuming that they’re “up to no good” or about to commit a crime because, in our culture, people of color are perceived as more dangerous than whites.

Or they might not ask anything at all, and instead call the police to report “suspicious activity” from the safety of their homes.

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the West to the Eastside.

Reckoning with my White Privilege 

My white privilege is being able to cross this street. 

My white privilege is being able to rent a house in a predominantly black neighborhood while having unencumbered access to public spaces in the mostly white communities adjacent to us.

My white privilege is being able to cross the street and be welcomed into a neighborhood that is not my own because I am white and not viewed as a threat to the white homeowners.

When we first moved into this neighborhood, it seemed we were the only white people on our street. We bought a Ring security system to protect us and our belongings from the unknown. We have never had any break-ins. However, our security alarm went off on multiple occasions because we forgot to disarm it before opening our front door. I’m sure our neighbors had a great laugh at the young white people who moved in and continuously set off the security alarm at their own house.

I’m embarrassed that we ever purchased it.

The unknown, it turns out, was a street filled with kind neighbors who always say “Hello!” or “Good morning!” and ask about our day – even though we are actively a part of the force that is gentrifying their neighborhood.

They’ve checked in with us during the Coronavirus pandemic, they’ve invited us to have beers outside with them, they’ve let their children come over and say hello to us and play with our dogs, and they congratulated us as we walked back from our wedding in the park across the street.

We don’t need a security system, because we have good neighbors who spend their time hanging out with their friends in their front yards, having eyes on the street. They know us, and we know them.

So what am I to do now, with all this insight? I don’t know yet. But I do know that insight without action is wasted, and so I will figure it out.

Jenna Bower is a designer and writer living in Savannah, GA with her husband and three dogs by way of Rochester, NY. She holds an MFA in Design for Sustainability from the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she’s not writing, reading or marketing for her day job, she serves on the board of Keep Savannah Beautiful and feeds baby raccoons at a local wildlife rescue.

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