Friday, June 23, 2006

Love Thy N.I.M.B.Y.

Recently our neighborhood awoke to the sounds of machinery tearing into the church parking lot, which is up the street and behind us. I figured the lot was being re-surfaced. Then I got a note from my neighbor about the construction, and I stopped over to talk with her.

She said she asked the contractor who was working on the parking lot if he was fixing the problem or making it worse. “He was nice as could be, and said they would fix the problem of the water runoff from the existing parking lot… And now, they’re making a new parking lot on the property they bought next door,” she said.

I talked with neighbors who’ve been in the neighborhood for decades. “We get the water bad, but it runs off of our property down onto the others' yards,” they told me. Another neighbor complained that the church folks let their kids run in his yard.

* * *

I never expected it to happen, but apparently I’ve become one of those characters who have annoyed me. I’ve become a NIMBY.

NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard,” and refers to outspoken residents who come out to council meetings when they are confronted with a development they dislike. As a freelance journalist, NIMBYs have been my bread and butter. I’ve quoted them extensively. But I never saw myself becoming one of “them.” Still, I realized I was a NIMBY through my overreaction to the church’s actions.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, where my father was an Elder. I grew up attending First Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsburgh and became a member there. We kids who grew up there referred to the place fondly as “First Church.” It was our church—a place where we worshipped, and met for youth groups, musical theatrical productions, and even sleepovers.

I no longer regularly attend church. If I make it to Easter service and Christmas service, I expect my wife to be happy. But that’s not how I grew up. From the moment of my birth, I had the Bible quoted around me.

Growing up in our family of twelve kids, we had Devotions after dinner on weekdays. We would read from a book of illustrated Bible stories for kids, or from the King James Bible, reciting verses so they still echo in my head at the thought:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly

Nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful

For his delight is in the law of the Lord

I mention this to establish my religious pedigree, and also to explain that it pained me to be griping about the actions of a church. I wasn’t raised to talk dirt on churches, and I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten to this point of resenting my neighbor. It was an unsettling feeling.

* * *

After making fruitless calls about the project and learning little about the borough’s involvement in it, I spoke with the contractor, who told me his company wasn’t responsible and that I should talk to the church. So I called the church, and reached the minister. I asked him if they were building a new parking lot in the back yard of the property they bought next door, and he said they were.

“Did you think your neighbors would appreciate that parking lot, or didn’t you care?” I asked as evenly as I could. He didn't respond.

“Would you like it if someone put in a parking lot next to your house?” I asked. "Or wouldn't you mind?"

“No, I don’t think I’d mind,” the reverend said. “O.K.?”

“O.K.” I said.

I felt exhausted by the anger that was raging inside me. I was worn out. I felt powerless—like no matter what I did, it was all a done deal.

I thought of what the minister said, and again I wondered if I was making a suburban mall out of a few parking spaces. Was I overreacting, I wondered. It dawned on me that we are all at the mercy of our neighbors. How tenuous are our loyalties, if the addition of something as fleeting as a parking lot can set neighbor against neighbor? Since I've passed into NIMBYhood, things feel more uncertain.

As I get older, I sometimes find myself doing things I never thought I’d do. I can remember feeling superior to some of the NIMBYs I encountered many years ago, thinking that they ought to just buy all of the property around, if they wanted to dictate what other property owners would do with their acreage. Since the construction equipment recently jarred me from my naïve state, I feel differently. But I know, here in Pittsburgh, I can count on things changing, and NIMBYs complaining.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Success story

These guys have a nice success story in their Pittsburgh-based architecture business, as I discovered while talking with them for this article.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


I was in the backyard late last summer, talking with my neighbor across the fence that edges the side of the yard. Karen is a retired schoolteacher who taught in Pittsburgh public schools, and she takes no guff. She is kind and generous with me regarding plants and gardening, and she has given me a large azalea and a Dogwood tree.

Until this spring, when my next-door neighbor put in a wooden fence, Karen sometimes would stroll from her yard, three houses down, up to our fence. She would lean on the fence while chatting with me, and I would oblige by weeding closer to where she was standing, so we didn’t have to yell. During such a chat late last summer, somehow the subject of race came up.

She saw my scars and she said definitively, “See how your scars have gotten colored like that? You’ve got some melanin in your skin… White people’s scars don’t do that, they stay white,” she said.

It almost sounded like she was giving me credit for having a bit of color in my blood. I owned up to being part Croatian, which is where I get the yellow skin, I said half-joking.

“I’m yellow, too,” she said, her soft blue eyes flashing.

Karen is obviously of mixed race, that is, of African and European ancestry. She is what some would call “high yellow.” So when she said she also was yellow, I just nodded my head. She was smiling as she said it, and obviously proud of being so. She said it in the same way that she bragged on her baby granddaughter being beautiful and looking like her grandma.

Since that conversation I’ve been wondering about the subject of race, but truthfully, I’ve been pondering the question for a while. What brings this up for me recently is the fact that I’ve finally realized in the past few years that, by virtue of my Croatian blood and my Slavic-looking face, I am what some would call “ethnic.” That is, not a WASP. Not quite lily white.

When I was about fourteen I went to football camp at West Virginia University, and I allowed myself to get as tan as I would. Standing out on the fields each day in the hot sun, I got so dark that my back was nearly the color of charcoal. My mom, Joanne, was appalled. “Jonathan, you’re black!” she said with a horrified expression when she saw me after camp.

Unlike her olive-skinned brother, Joanne had inherited the pasty pigmentation of some of her father’s Irish forbearers. A while back she read a story I’d written about discovering my Slavic heritage, and she commented on how her mother never complimented the way she looked when she was growing up.

“I was always aware of my mother being beautiful, but I never thought I looked like her. Once, a friend of hers said she could see why I was so pretty because I looked just like her. My mother said: ‘She doesn’t look like me! She looks just like her father!’”

Wait a minute, Joanne added, there was one time that she did compliment my looks. “My mother said that when my brother Don was born, he was yellow and brown. ‘He was ugly,’ she said. ‘But when you were born, you were all pink and white and beautiful.’ Can you imagine a mother saying that about her baby boy?”

I thought everyone in Grandma’s family was olive-skinned, I asked Joanne. They were, she said, adding that she thought her brother probably had jaundice as a newborn. “A lot of you kids had jaundice when you were born,” she said.

The strange, almost racial discrimination that my grandma showed regarding her own children reminded me of how large a factor race, or even racially based physical characteristics, can be in a person’s life. Only a few of my eleven siblings inherited the olive-skinned characteristic in full. Most of the kids in my family are more yellow-skinned, and we “boys” are darker-skinned than both of our parents.

The “dark” characteristics of our Croatian side could originate from a number of sources, not the least of which were the invasions of the Balkans by the Mongols and the Moors. Before and after those groups set foot there, Italians were mixing with people in the Balkans. Who knows how many other darker-skinned folk invaded the Balkans and contributed to the gene pool there over the course of history?

I’ve found that I probably inherited my high cheekbones and my eye color from my Croatian side. These characteristics were passed down from my great-grandma, to my grandma, to my mother, than to me, and also to many of my siblings. Thinking about all of this, I remembered that my grandmother took credit for my curly hair.

I can remember Grandma looking at me with her hard, inscrutable face and complimenting me: “You have nice curly hair. You got that from me.” She said it without smiling, a hint of a grin sparking from her deep-set, Croatian eyes. They were the same color as my eyes, I noticed again. I recognized the color of our eyes when she came to stay with my mom after my dad died.

I know some of this side of the family history from my mother, but also know some from my great Uncle John, who is one of my late grandma’s brothers. I recently spoke with John and I quizzed him about his parents.

My great-grandfather, Franjo, came to America 97 years ago after being recruited for mining work while he and his family were living in Zagreb. Franjo worked in the iron-ore mines for nearly five years before he could afford to bring his wife and young daughter to America.

Uncle John said Franjo and my great-grandmother Lucia both were short. It occurred to me that I was descended in part from a line of dark-skinned, short people from a strange land who spoke a foreign tongue. They had what some considered odd-looking eyes that were distinctly different from those of the “white” (read Anglo-Saxon) people who already lived here in America.

I thought of how fast things change. Within a century, dark-skinned foreigners have become completely absorbed into the larger culture, and many of them have become prosperous. One hundred years ago, the Croatians were the Mexicans of their day, I said to Uncle John, and he agreed.

In the mining town in which John grew up, the Croatians and Italians lived in one part of town, and the English, Irish and Poles lived in another part of town. The geographic lines between northern and southern Europeans were as cleanly drawn as meridian lines on a map. People knew where they lived—in company-owned houses.

I considered the hard life my great-grandfather lived—he helped to dig twenty-one miners out of the mine after they were killed in an explosion, and he buried one of his own children in a different tragedy, to name two of the losses he endured. Thinking about his life, I felt a tremor of empathy for the illegal immigrants that are streaming in through America’s southern border. Then I thought of the poor people throughout the world who wish they could come to the United States. I thought of the Croatians and other people from the Balkans who want a chance to live in America.

* * *

Seemingly oblivious to everything but itself, the 15-foot-tall Dogwood tree that Karen gave me is blooming right now. It’s the first time the tree has flowered since I transplanted it into my front yard a few years ago, when it was just an 8-foot-tall sapling. The flowers now are white, after blossoming from green to yellow.