I’m sitting here in my America, quiet behind my computer and more-or-less oblivious to the other Americas beyond my study window. Every once in a while at night when I’m here at work, I’ll hear the sound of gunshots echoing up the hill. I live in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, but not in Wilkinsburg proper, which is down the hill and is the place that many know from the shootings. My suburb gained nationwide press four years back when a deranged black man, Ronald Taylor, went on a racially charged shooting spree and shot and killed several people.
Folks on my side of the neighborhood shyly reveal their municipality to friends.
“This is Wilkinsburg? I can’t believe it, it’s so nice,” the friends always say.
“Well, Churchill is just a block that way,” we say.
To look around my neighborhood, you wouldn’t know people were being shot a mile away. You wouldn’t even know that it’s the same community, since Wilkinsburg is 66 percent black and my neighborhood, which extends from Wilkinsburg into the bordering suburb of Churchill, has a white majority. Up here on the other side of Graham Boulevard, there are no sidewalks and the bushes seem to grow thicker.
Like many Americans, I tend to focus on my family and home. This disaffection of Americans is evidenced by the fact that many voters view a candidate’s recognition of the variety of social classes in America as a ridiculous. We’ve all heard the joke: “John Kerry believes there are ‘two Americas.’ He has to go through the other America to get to his America.”
The joke, though mean, points to the nagging question of class in our supposedly egalitarian society. Partly due to de-industrialization and other factors, there seems to be a widening gap between the working poor and the middle class. But pointing this out is perceived by many people to be un-American. In polite middle-class society, it seems that a person does not say the “C-word.” Social class is considered a vulgar topic, and proper folks just don’t mention it.
But most of us have to go through the other America to get to our middle-class Americas. So we turn up the car radio, race against the red light and get through the “depressed” neighborhoods as fast as possible.
Occasionally the gunshots jar us back to reality. The other day I was talking with a friend from McKeesport, a formerly bustling steel mill town outside Pittsburgh that once was home to 50,000 people but is now half that size. My friend lives “up the hill” in the “better part” of McKeesport, a city that in recent years has had many shootings and much violence. I told the friend how I felt so close, yet so removed, from the violence in my borough.
“Tell me about it, I’m up here in Haler Heights, barbecuing. And they’re down the hill, shooting each other,” she said.
People often mistake my friend’s neighborhood for being part of Whitehall. People tend to think my community is in Churchill. These are examples of the psychological disconnect that occurs when middle-class people try to comprehend street violence in high-crime areas that are so close to well-maintained, middle-class areas. But we’re only human—as long as it’s not in our neighborhoods, we tend to forget about the street war that’s raging blocks away. Unless people are regularly murdered in our neighborhoods, we don’t seem to get the message that we are all part of the larger, interconnected American neighborhood, whether or not we like to think so. The problem of social class in America is defined by the fact that we are one prosperous nation, with many islands of poverty and crime that give the lie to the American Dream.
Until we begin to recognize that class is not a dirty word, we’ll have to avert our eyes when heading uphill to our suburban homes. Crime and fear of the “other America” don’t have to be facts of life, but many of us act as if they do. And as long as we think so, there will always be at least two Americas, side by side.