In this article for the Boston Globe, Carlo Rotella ’86 discusses the role of neighborhoods in shaping people’s identities. He compares his current home in a peaceful Massachusetts suburb to the South Shore of Chicago, where he grew up. Rotella concludes that inevitably “we live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods live in us.”
Carlo Rotella, who is a professor of English and the director of American Studies at Boston College, is an award-winning journalist and author.
I’ve been doing research lately in South Shore, the neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side in which I grew up, and I’m struck more than ever by the sharp contrasts it presents. Blocks of trim bungalows with well-kept lawns intersect with desolate commercial streets that can’t seem to support even the most basic businesses — a supermarket, a bank, restaurants. Poor people displaced by the demolition of high-rise housing projects live around the corner from middle-class householders.
Part of South Shore’s appeal as a place to live and to study is that it’s a fairly unexceptional urban bedroom community. But you can see city-shaping historical processes at work there: the sorting of Americans into haves and have-nots, the hollowing-out of the middle class, the loss of faith in government, the persistent effects of racial inequality, the consequences of deindustrialization, and the rise of a postindustrial economy in which the most accessible path to success runs through public schools abandoned by almost everybody who can afford to.
That’s the big, big picture: We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods live in us. I try to keep it in mind as I go back and forth between my home in Brookline, an enclave buffered by education and prosperity where I almost never think about crime or worry about the neighborhood’s future, and South Shore, where a pervasive sense of exposure to the social and economic tensions of our time produces bumper crops of precariousness and uncertainty.
Image: c/o Boston College
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