Don’t beware what is beyond the bridge

As my final semester at Case Western Reserve University is coming to an end, it’s time to figure out where to move onto next. I’ve lived in Northeast Ohio my whole life.  When I was 10 years old, my mom moved our family from East Cleveland to Twinsburg. Coming back to Case Western Reserve University as an undergraduate student seemed far-fetched.

For me, it represented crossing the bridge.

You know, the same one that sits between East 120th and East 118th Streets on Euclid Avenue. The one that many students joke about being afraid to cross. During my time here, students seem to almost go out of their way to deride the city while not fully aware of the racial undertones associated with the criminal labeling of the East Side of the city.

What is considered past the bridge is largely a matter of perspective. Coming to CWRU, at least for me, was going past the bridge. To the prestigious, elite, aloof institution in the newly gentrified University Circle. Most CWRU students see crossing the bridge as going into something unfamiliar by stepping into East Cleveland, but I felt the same way coming to Case Western Reserve University as a student, not to visit.

However, while students joke about the bridge and what happens in East Cleveland, talking about the city in such a way creates an atmosphere of fear of the surrounding areas. There are challenges with crime that urban areas face, but to label whole cities as hazardous has a damaging effect on the area and its citizens. It represents a larger problem with how we discuss and react to crime by failing to look at the greater context of what causes it.

America “eats its babies,” and both East Cleveland and Cleveland can attest to that. Poverty rates in the city remain high. The infant mortality rates in the Hough neighborhood are comparable to third world countries. The U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of unconstitutional police violence in the city. Children are poisoned by lead at high rates. The school system is one of the worst in the country. Air pollution landed Cleveland in the top ten cities with preventable respiratory deaths, with most of the pollution concentrated on the east side of the city. These are just a few of the shocking statistics that show how some Cleveland residents are forgotten.

Case Western Reserve University strives to help the surrounding community and has proven to be racially progressive, but the way that I have heard the east side of the city and East Cleveland talked about has been discouraging and carry racial undertones that affect African-Americans students experience on campus, at least my own.

I’ve lived in the suburbs and in urban areas. Walking on campus you wonder how someone perceives you. Do they think that I go here? Do I look like an East Clevelander?

A Black security guard asked me to stop while I walked through the law school I used to work in, but only as a joke. What kind of joke is that? One where both parties know how tense the relationship can be on this campus at times. There’s a level of anxiety that African-Americans operate with on campus in terms of feeling scrutinized by law enforcement. That bubbles over when you hear about a councilman being mistaken for someone begging for money.

I’m not asking to ignore the realities of crime. Walking home at night anywhere alone can have dire consequences for young people of any race or gender. It can be dangerous on campuses as prestigious as this, in high-crime areas, and in areas considered safe.  Look no further than the case of Trayvon Martin to prove that innocent people are victims of violent crime in suburban neighborhoods as well.

What I am saying is that such dialogue about the surrounding urban areas, which are some of the most segregated in the country, has an effect on how we perceive such an area. It is a common sense notion that we ought to be careful in our judgments and realize the neither neighborhoods nor cities are monoliths. The presence of Black and Brown bodies, especially male ones, does not make an area dangerous.

Snap judgments of East Cleveland and Cleveland are common on this campus, but I have heard little criticism of Little Italy despite restaurants with long sheets of health code violations that continue to operate on Mayfield Road. Nearly 20 years ago, African-Americans were unable to safely travel through the neighborhood.

Would I be right in calling it a racially regressive rat-infested neighborhood?

Of course not. Because cities are ultimately bigger than their problems, although this optimistic perspective is not always afforded to places of color.