The 500 pound gorilla in the room, keeping company with most family’s decision whether to live in the city or not, is the question of schools. City schools are burdened with massive legacy costs from aging infrastructure, dwindling tax base, out of control bureaucracy, to the special problems inherent with dysfunctional poverty-stricken neighborhoods—and then there is the issue of race. As I noted in the third installation of this series, my family bucked the trend during the 1970’s and moved into the city. I attended Buffalo Public School for 7th and 8th grade. I got a great education, but the most valuable learning came from the city itself.
We moved to the Elmwood Village at a time when this part of the city was set to reinvent itself as the premiere city neighborhood, but was still quite rough around the edges. Its continued success was far from certain. The neighborhood was mostly white, its residents relatively well off financially but, was bordered by very poor neighborhoods on 2 sides (as it remains today as well).
This part of the city has such massive contrasts that you can literally walk 10 minutes from million dollar houses on Tudor Place, one of Western New York’s most exclusive streets, to abject poverty east of Main Street. These are the kinds of contrasts that make many people uncomfortable. Contrast and diversity is both the strength and weakness cities. The tensions and clashes inherent with close proximity of people with different world experience can be the source of many problems as well as the genesis of tremendous creativity. I cannot comprehend my life today without having had direct exposure to this diversity, both good and bad.
I am ashamed to say that as a very young child I was scared to be touched by a black person. My parents were not overtly racist. I was not taught to hate. It is just that most of the images I received with an African-American face came through nightly news footage of riots, crime, and burning neighborhoods. My early suburban upbringing offered me no contact with anyone other than people who were basically the same as me (oddly I was the minority as the only Protestant kid in my pretty much 100% Catholic neighborhood). That changed once we moved. An African-American neighborhood was only a few blocks from my new house (literally at the end of my block just east of Millard Fillmore hospital).
Up to the time we moved from Lackawanna to Elmwood Village I had never seen a black person on my street or in my school—ever! As one of the few suburbs with a substantial black population, busing was a possibility that weighed quite heavily on the minds of parents in Lackawanna. This was always a fear in my Lackawanna grammar school and any discussion of race among my peers at school revolved around how horrible it would be if they brought black kids to our school, or God forbid, we were sent to a black school. These were kids who may have never been in the presence of a black person in their lives, but they knew, with all their heart, that going to school with them was pretty much Armageddon. In that city, a swath of railroad tracks conveniently divided the races. In Buffalo the separation of races was stark, but far less fixed.
I remember very clearly my early days at my new city school, West Delevan School #56 ( Now closed and soon to be converted to upscale apartments). Upon my first glimpse of the big old building I knew things were going to be very different. Have you seen the movie My Body Guard?—It was kind of like that. I am sure I was very nervous. The building was a hulking, three-story pile of brick and terra-cotta pushed tight to the street and squeezed between its neighboring houses. It had no big grassy school yard, no playground, and no name—just a number to designate the place. It had a big grand auditorium off the back and in the basement a gym, with a ceiling that was too low. The huge windows of the upper classrooms looked out on the vastness of the urban landscape. It was all wondrous and strange. I remember making friends and enemies very quickly. The kids in my homeroom class could only be described as a rag-tag group; they were short and tall, fat and freckled, smart and slow. A small number were also black. This is the closest I had ever been to a black person for an extended time. This was the first time I ever interacted with a black person.
The truth is however, even in this situation the interaction between the white and black kids was still quite limited. Even in this close proximity the fact is, that we came from very different worlds. We saw and interpreted things differently. Distrust was inherent in the relationship in both directions. Even so, I gained valuable insight into human interaction from that classroom. One such lesson happened unexpectedly.
There was one kid who decided from the start that he did not like me. I was smallish and skinny and was not very athletic. I was an easy target for someone who needed to prove himself. This kid was always egging me on, teasing, and bullying. One day the pestering got a bit too much to tolerate and the only way to end it was to stand and fight. One day, on the way home from school, we came to blows. The fight gathered a crowd, including many of the black kids. I was determined not to lose and fought to a draw. The African-American kids were firmly on my side rooting me on the entire time. To them I was the underdog. I was their representative in that fight. To them, in some small way, my fight was their fight. This was ironic because the black kids often picked on me too. I fought to a draw but I was not bothered by this kid any more. Although I never became close friends with the black kids in class, we definitely had a new unspoken bond between us.
I attended public school in the city, but the walls of this school were very broad.
Next up – #5 Exploration.
Also – a reminder that you are invited to submit your own growing up city experience.