Racist? or Not Racist? BYC Edition.

On Monday night, I attended the South East Lake View Neighbors (SELVN) meeting where they were discussing, among other things, the fate of the Broadway Youth Center (BYC). I’m not a resident of Lakeview (more on that later), so I was reluctant to attend, despite my longstanding support of BYC. One of the underlying principles of my work is that people in local communities should have the right to self-determine policies that affect them, and while I advocate for this precisely because it is so rare for systematically marginalized communities to be offered a seat at the decision-making table, I wasn’t sure that I felt that the fact that most of the residents in Lakeview are richer and whiter than most of the city necessarily excluded them from the right to make decisions about things that happen on their street.

Ultimately, though, I decided to attend the SELVN meeting for two reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to bear witness. I have been following the tensions in Lakeview/Boystown for a long time, and in this particular case, I have heard both sides complain about the rhetoric in the fight. BYC supporters accusing SELVN of being racist, classist, and transphobic in their opposition to a drop-in center for homeless youth in their neighborhood. SELVN members expressing hurt and outrage that their concerns about safety on their streets have subjected them to the accusation that they are racist, classist, and transphobic. I wanted to see for myself what one of these meetings was like, instead of relying on hearsay. But I also decided that the question of who has a right to participate in this conversation is more complicated than simply residents/non-residents.

Poor LGBTQ youth of colour go to Boystown because that’s where resources for the LGBTQ “community” have been concentrated. Activists, policy makers, business owners, politicians, scenesters, organizers, event planners… pretty much anyone you can imagine invested in mainstreaming LGBTQ people and promoting “visibility” and the “gay dollar” have concentrated these efforts in “the gay neighborhood.” For decades. It is a large part of the economic infusion that gentrified Lakeview, making it the “safe” neighborhood it is today. So, OF COURSE, this is where everyone who needs/wants the resources, social or otherwise, of a gay “community” goes. OF COURSE this is where social services designed to serve LGBTQ people, youth or otherwise, have concentrated. And OF COURSE you have people who don’t live in Lakeview coming to Lakeview to access these resources. Duh. So it is a profound hypocrisy to benefit from the systematic infusion of resources into one’s neighborhood and then complain that the “wrong” kind of people — the poor, the underage, the disenfranchised–are coming in to your neighborhood to access services and spaces that don’t exist in other parts of the city. And it is disingenuous to suggest that this is precisely your complaint, that services are “here” (Lakeview) and not “there” (everywhere else, where they are obviously needed.) As if decades of concentrating time, energy, and resources can suddenly be transplanted. As someone who contributes to the economy in Lakeview, who participates in its marketable “gayness,” I believe I have a right to express an opinion about it.

I didn’t talk at the meeting. I just listened. Often I gasped. A few times, I cried. Once, I put my sweater over my head and just breathed until my heart stopped racing. Because the meeting was horrible. I feel so sad for youth who, in addition to dealing with poverty, homelessness, safety, etc, also find themselves facing such outright hostility from the community around the places where they go to seek services. I feel so stressed out on the part of service providers who, in addition to the challenges of their not-for-profit jobs, have to navigate such implicit and explicit disgust. And I feel angry about the handful of people who are so invested in their ideology of who belongs and who doesn’t that they cannot see past their own privilege into a way of imagining a community that includes rather than excludes, people who are are steering the conversation towards “yes!” or “no!” and not “how can we make this work?”  But what I found hopeful about the meeting, is that for every person who asked questions like “why should we be bringing programs for homeless youth into an area where people have worked hard for their million dollar condos,” (as if somehow wealth in ANY WAY correlated with hard work, as if there are not millions of people in this country working multiple jobs and still facing poverty, as if most homeless families do not have at least one member with a job) there was another who expressed support for the program, who noted that it is precisely those who have the most resources who should feel obligated to find ways of helping programs like BYC succeed.

The reality is, the people opposing the BYC are operating under the very definition of racism and classism – systems that have nothing to do with personal feelings and everything to do with how institutional decisions work together and are informed by ideology. It is possible to be well-meaning, to have Black friends, to be a person of colour yourself, and still be so invested in the certainty that poor and of colour is not just less desirable, but more dangerous, that you will throw your time, energy, and money into finding every institutional strategy you can to keep “those people” out. It is assuming that a perceived uptick in crime is the result of a social service agency attracting “undesirables” and not any number of other simultaneous factors, including increased policing and increased reporting.  It is stating that you believe these services are important but only in someone else’s neighborhood. It is the firm conviction that you are in no way responsible for the well-being of people who are less privileged than you are, when you benefit from the concentration of resources that keep those resources from being diffused across the city.

Ultimately, I have no real ability to impact this decision making, and I know that by writing this post, I am opening myself up to criticism from people who will say that this is all easy for me to say because I don’t have to live next door to BYC. To that, I will simply say that the most frequent complaints I heard about safety were about the perception of safety – complaints that youth were loud, that they were shouting on the street, that they were congregating on sidewalks, that they were smoking pot in front of houses. But guess what? Sometimes these kinds of things happen in front of my house too. I’m pretty sure they happen all over the city, except in places where people are working VERY HARD to keep teens with nowhere else to go out. The solution to that is to work with the center, not against it. To get to know people. To be friendly. Maybe even to volunteer or donate money so that BYC has the resources it needs to succeed. Or, I guess, if you reallyreallyreally believe  a drop-in center doesn’t belong on a residential street, put your time and energy into helping BYC find a space, not simply into pushing them out of one. I’m not trying to be Pollyanna about this. The situation is complicated. And ugly. If I had the personal resources to just pick up BYC and move it to happy land, I would.  Because youth, and their advocates, deserve better than all that.