The first time my buddy Matt slept over at my house, I woke to find him looking behind my bedroom shade.
“What are you doing?” I asked groggily.
“I heard police sirens, and I wanted to see what happened,” he said.
Matt looked nervous and I imagined my confused face looking back at him.
It was our freshman year at Pius XI High School, and although we were best friends, liked rock music and sports, we had some differences.
He grew up in Franklin and I grew up in Milwaukee. Not Wauwatosa or some other suburb, but the city. My parents’ house is on the North Side, 63rd and Center streets, in a cul-de-sac. It’s not a bad neighborhood.
Matt’s family also lived in a cul-de-sac, but the houses in his neighborhood were further apart and there were woods behind his house.
That morning, I realized Matt had probably never awoken to the sound of a siren from an ambulance, firetruck or police car. Those noises were my lullabies when I was too old for my mother to sing me to sleep.
There were occasional gunshots or, if they weren’t gunshots, very loud firecrackers that I heard. Sometimes, I could hear people arguing outside. Sometimes, I didn’t hear anything.
That didn’t stop Matt from coming to my house and, as far as I knew, his parents never minded him spending time there.
But Milwaukee bothers some parents.
I talked to four teenagers about violence in Milwaukee for the story on Pages 6 and 7. In the conversation about urban violence, their voice is missing. On the evening news, most stories show almost all adults — parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends, police.
I talked to Jasmine Benavidez, a student at Divine Savior Holy Angels, about her neighborhood on the South Side and her frustration with friends who don’t live in her area.
“If we invite (friends) over to our house on the South Side, they won’t come because they’re paranoid,” she said. “Whenever they talk about the South Side of Milwaukee, it’s always with a bad connotation.”
As I listened, I tried to empathize, but I struggled. In high school, I could have named people whose parents may have had a problem with them coming to my house, but I never hung out with them. I never felt rejected based on where I lived.
But not everyone has taken going to my parents’ house so well.
Three years ago, I was working part-time for a pest control company in Sussex. My parents were hosting a college graduation party for my brother. My mom wanted the party mosquito free, and my boss had generously donated the work. As we drove to my parents’ house, I gave my boss the address and a co-worker, who grew up in Sussex, turned to me and said a phrase, which at that time, I had never heard.
“Isn’t it a little dark over there?” he asked.
It was before 10 a.m. on a bright, hot, summer day.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “It’s the middle of the day.”
He didn’t reply.
That phrase – “a little dark” – stood out. What did he mean? Was he talking about African Americans? Was that racist? Did he mean “dark” as in something evil or sinister?
After work, I told my girlfriend, who grew up in Sussex, about the incident. She was surprised I hadn’t heard that phrase until then. She told me she’d heard “a little dark” as far back as to when she was a kid, and she’d only heard it used in some sort of racial context.
It was the first time I heard someone describe an area as “a little dark,” but it wasn’t the last.
The most recent was at a bar in Wauwatosa where friends and I were complaining about the bars on Water Street. We sounded like a bunch of old folks as we lamented places being over-priced and too crowded.
I’m pretty sure I was the one who said, “Yeah, and the music is too loud.”
But then one friend said, “Yeah, and it’s getting a little dark.”
There it was – “a little dark.” After already having one or two or five Old Fashioneds, I confronted them about those words and asked them to explain “a little dark.”
I argued it was coded language, suggesting there were too many non-Caucasians going to those bars and they wouldn’t use that phrase at, say, Country USA. We argued about the language and ended the conversation not without coming to a consensus.
This is not a rant against suburbanites; it’s a call to action. Residents of the city work hard to live safely; they shouldn’t be abandoned by those who live less than an hour’s drive away.
The children who strategize the safest walking route to and from a friend’s house shouldn’t be abandoned by parents who obsess over news stories about violence in Milwaukee and who don’t realize crime can happen anywhere.
We live in a close-knit Wisconsin community where issues affecting one group impact another group. Turning a blind eye to one’s responsibility to his or her fellow citizen and parishioner, or hoping arbitrary borders will keep the bad away, has never been a viable solution. With that mentality, issues remain unaddressed and, worse, ignorance is perpetuated from one generation to the next.
At the end of 2015, the Brookings Institute, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, labeled Milwaukee as the most residentially segregated among large metropolitan areas. What does that say about the racial divide in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee?
As Catholics, we should be embarrassed by these facts. Instead of trying to explain why we shouldn’t be blamed or whose fault it is or might be, how about recognizing that this is a problem — OUR problem — and we, not “they” (whoever “they” are) have to be the ones that fix it?
Throughout high school, Matt continued to sleep over at my parents’ house. I was welcomed into his parents’ house, too. We attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where we shared a dorm, apartment and house over four years. I introduced him to his wife and was a groomsman at their wedding. I am the godfather of their first child.
It’s been 14 years since he was awoken by those nighttime sirens, but it never affected our friendship. He was never shaken by a kid who came from “a little dark” neighborhood and his parents never minded their son spending the night there.
How many other relationships are stopped before they even begin just because someone judged a neighborhood and not the person who lives there?