The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Afraid of "Bad Neighborhoods"
I learned that the hood is full of good people
Evin Cruz
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When I was about 9 years old, my parents began telling me to be careful of bad neighborhoods. They described them as violent places where people sold drugs. My dad told me, “You always have to watch your back and be aware of your surroundings.” We lived in suburban North Bergen, New Jersey, but they had once lived in a bad area of Brooklyn, so I guess they wanted me to be aware that these places existed.

On trips to Massachusetts to visit family, we’d drive through the Bronx. Although they didn’t tell me directly, I knew I was looking at some of the horrifying places my parents had talked about. I’d see ugly buildings covered in graffiti that looked like they were about to crumble, and stores that needed some major cleaning. Even the people walking around looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.

I also noticed that the people in these areas were usually black or Hispanic. My father and mother are both part Puerto Rican, so it’s not like they were trying to give me racist ideas. Still, part of what I took from their warnings and from seeing these neighborhoods firsthand was a fear of black and Hispanic people. Wherever we went, when I saw a black or Hispanic person I would keep my eye on them, fearing that they would try to mug me.

Glorifying the Ghetto

Once I started middle school, I found plenty of black and Hispanic kids to be wary of. Most of these kids bragged about how they came from the ghetto, even though I knew that our part of Jersey wasn’t that bad. North Bergen isn’t the best place to raise a kid, but it’s a cake walk compared to some places in New York.

To me it looked like they were competing for whoever had the worst housing. I had no respect for this way of thinking, because I didn’t see the point of glorifying something bad. Although I thought their attempts to be ghetto were pathetic, I was still nervous around them. It seemed like they would do anything for a title—maybe sell drugs, maybe vandalize property, maybe even kill someone. I didn’t know what their need for a name would cost them or someone else.

So my distrust of black and Hispanic people grew. There is a difference between race and a cultural title like “ghetto,” but at such a young age those two things had the same meaning to me: If you were ghetto, you were black or Hispanic, and if you were black or Hispanic, you had to be ghetto.

In other words, at this time in my life I wasn’t so proud of the Puerto Rican part of my blood. I saw myself more as white, and that’s how my peers eventually saw me, too. In my mind I separated myself from other Hispanic people, and viewed myself as smarter and more responsible than those “delinquents.”

What I should have seen was that, just as I didn’t fit the stereotype, there were plenty of other black and Hispanic kids who didn’t praise the ghetto.

Trembling in the Heights

In 8th grade, I moved to 92nd Street in New York City and started going to Manhattan School for Children. It was a mixed class with black, white, Hispanic, and Asian kids. Here, the black and Hispanic kids didn’t seem interested in being ghetto. Sure, they liked rap music, but they weren’t acting like thugs. Making friends with people of different races and ethnicities gave me insight into the cultures of Jamaican, Dominican, and even Polish people, and broadened my mind. I realized that there were people of all races I could get along with.

When it came to people who dressed or acted a certain way, though, I was still uncomfortable, especially when they outnumbered me. I remember going to West 145th Street for the first time to visit my friend. I took the #1 train up and gradually I was surrounded by more and more people of color. My heart sped up, my eyes widened, and I was completely alert to everything around me.

When I got to the stop, just waiting at the corner for my friend felt like hours. I saw big black men walking around with do-rags on, and large groups of people speaking in languages I’d never heard. Eventually my friend came along, laughing and skipping without a worry in the world. I, on the other hand, was as stiff as a log with my chest puffed out, slightly flexing my arms in an attempt to keep up my tough guy persona. I was trying not to look feeble and weak, but apparently it didn’t work all that well.

“You look scared. Are you shaking?” she laughed.

I think seeing how chill my friend was calmed me down. We went to the park and as I relaxed more I could see this “bad neighborhood” was full of people just trying to have a good time in the spring heat. I could hear the blissful yells of little children playing in the grass. Even the people that I’d found scary now looked like they just wanted to have some fun.

That was the first of many trips I made to that neighborhood, and I grew to love the area. But that only changed my mind about Washington Heights. I held on to the notion that people somewhere else might be worse. And when I ended up going to a high school smack dab in what I considered the ghetto—New York’s very own Lower East Side—I had to confront my fears again.

‘A Lost Puppy Dog’

I’d heard news reports about stabbings and drug problems in the area, so to prepare for my first day I started to exercise more and even contemplated taking a weapon for my own safety. It felt like preparing for an epic battle. On my first day I literally felt sick to my stomach, and my imagination didn’t help. I started to picture the news headlines: “Small white boy killed at school.”

image by Steve Castillo

I pressed on, however, wandering from class to class and hoping I wouldn’t bump into the wrong person. Through my eyes, all the students looked like drug dealers or gang leaders. This was much different from my middle school in North Bergen. Here there were no posers, just people who had experienced the real deal.

I didn’t know her yet, but my friend Iris later told me that when she saw me in the auditorium during the second week of school, I looked like a “little lost puppy dog.” I thought making friends here was going to be impossible; almost everyone was walking around with fitted hats and huge t-shirts. I felt that if this was how they dressed, then their entire culture must revolve around rap, which meant that we’d have nothing in common.

Breaking Ice, and Stereotypes

Then one day, my computer teacher sat me next to a guy named Mickle. His skin was black, his hair was tied up in cornrows, and he wore a big black hooded sweater. This guy was taller than an old oak tree and clearly stronger than seven and a half bulls. His figure alone was horrifying and at first glance I decided I wasn’t ever going to talk to him. But then Mickle broke the ice.

“Hey. You like video games?”

“Absolutely.”

“Ever heard of addictinggames.com?”

“Yeah, I have. There’s this seriously scary game there I played. Here, let me show you.”

Soon we were playing online games and talking about school and life. It turned out Mickle was one of the nicest guys I’d ever met.

Mickle completely shattered the stereotypes I had come to believe about Hispanic and black people. Even though he initially looked intimidating to me, he was calm and caring. I saw that even though he listened to rap music and came from what I considered a bad neighborhood, we could still relate to each other. We both liked games, of course, and also action movies. We talked about our problems—sometimes gaming problems, but also issues with school and family—and tried to help each other find solutions.

View From Inside

Talking to Mickle made me able to open up to everyone more, and during my four years of high school I got to know many other people from the “hood.” One of my friends lived in a project building right next to the school. I went to visit her for the first time in my sophomore year, not knowing what to expect.

I was shocked. Her apartment had three big bedrooms. When I saw more project apartments I was amazed. They were not only bigger but cleaner than I expected. Some were well decorated and dare I say fancy-looking.

More important, by becoming close to people who lived in the projects I saw a different side of “the ghetto.” I saw how people who lived there knew everyone in the area. It was like a big family and people watched out for one another. Of course you had your jerks here and there, but that comes with every neighborhood. Gradually, I learned to separate people from the neighborhoods they live in.

Room for Friendship

Today, if I’m in an area that doesn’t look safe, I am still on my guard. But just because I feel unsafe in a certain area doesn’t mean I assume everyone there is bad or out to hurt me. If we see a person as defined by his race or neighborhood, then we cut ourselves off from wanting to know that person and lose the possibility of making a good friend. We’re also being unfair to people who might have nothing to do with their neighborhood’s reputation.

As Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji told Psychology Today magazine in 1998, stereotypes arise from the way we process information—they’re like a shortcut for helping us understand things. So they’re not necessarily “wrong”—we just have to be willing to put those shortcut assumptions aside and get to know who a person is. Otherwise, we weigh our stereotypes more than the evidence, and that’s not healthy for any relationship.

That’s why, these days, I try to look for evidence of who a person is by watching how they act and talk, and who their friends are. Race and social class don’t make bad people. It’s our choices that shape who we become.

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(NYC-2010-09-04)

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