Monday, March 03, 2008

5 miles

I'm in Jacksonville, Florida this week, staying at a hotel located in the heart of downtown. I read in the dining guide in my room about a highly rated Thai restaurant and decided to go there for dinner. According to my map it was about 5 miles Northwest of downtown, so I set out in the car. I ended up in the scariest neighborhood I've ever encountered. No sign of the Thai restaurant, but ramshackle houses, feral dogs and cats, roving packs of young men, heaps of garbage and broken furniture on the sidewalks. More than once I came upon police cars huddled together in the middle of the street. I almost expected to turn a corner and see the film crew for COPS. I saw no one who looked like me and I felt conspicuous. A little voice in the back of my head said, "Just keep driving."

I never did find the Thai place and so decided instead to head to a part of Jacksonville that I know has restaurants. It was about 5 miles South of downtown, across the river. This neighborhood was comprised of large brick homes with immaculately landscaped lawns and shiny cars in the driveways. Couples walked dogs, women jogged alone in the twilight and a small crowd clustered around a Starbucks. Everyone looked like me. I felt utterly comfortable.

I wish I understood why going 5 miles in either direction in an American city can lead one to such vastly different worlds. Why is this neighborhood black and that one white? Why does this one reek of hopelessness and desperation while that one oozes satisfaction and success? Why would I be afraid to get out of the car in this neighborhood but could walk down the sidewalk in complete confidence in that one? I wondered what the history is behind these two neighborhoods. Why did the poor black population concentrate here and the wealthy white population concentrate there? And is there anything that could bring them together?

And why was I so relieved to be across the river?


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