Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I've been thinking about slums recently.

Right down the street from where I live, there's a bunch of buildings that look like a bomb blast went off inside of them about ten, fifteen years back, a Die Hard style explosion gone awry, minus the modern-day heroics of a Bruce Willis to ease the pain and suffering. A lot of families live there, with husbands and wives, kids and clotheslines; these buildings look like overblown doll houses, their bare and shoddy rooms exposed for the whole world to see. Or at least that part of the world living on Sothearos Boulevard, I guess. (Not that that many doll houses look like remnants of shrapnel itself, only magnified.) This could be called, I guess, a slum.

There's a lot of them here in Phnom Penh. On my first trip to Cambodia, when I spent a week in Battambang, a Cambodian English teacher took me around to see the slums. There were no houses there, no buildings, just shacks, strips of wood tied together, a home cobbled out of necessity. All filled with desperately poor, perpetually smiling families. One boy had a growth that covered most of his face, a blue whoopee cushion stretching from brow to chin on the right hand side, but he was alert, friendly, open. He was a kid.

Slums are the subject, in part, of a book I'm reading called The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns. (No, not that Edward Burns; this one's a former cop, now a schoolteacher.)

These two writers chronicle a year in the life of the streets of West Baltimore, exposing the families and community that thrive in one of the 'worst' neighbourhoods in one of the most crime ridden cities in America. Its a brutal, piercing, heartbreaking book, focusing on a handful of people, a handful of families, a handful of drug addicts; the book exposes the drug subculture that exists in its own, enclosed universe.

I said 'worst' neighbourhoods, as if I know what I'm talking about. I grew up in a safe town; there was no inner city in my city. The closest I've come, in Canada, was when I lived for four years on-campus at York University in Toronto, just down the block from what is basically the most dangerous intersection in Canada, Jane and Finch. Even the name, 'Jane and Finch', brings back memories of, well, avoidance, mostly. You didn't want to go down there. Too dangerous. Too hostile. (What they meant was, let's be honest, too 'black'. )

I ventured into that forbidden zone once, with the guy who lived next to me in my dorm; we went to McDonald's, and had our meals, and were not shot, not even once.

And now I'm living right near a place that would, in some ways, make the intersection of Jane and Finch look positively bubbly. And I'm alive. And I haven't been shot.

The thing is, it's just so, so, so outside of my scope. I read books like this, and you marvel at the humanity of the people, and weep over the stupidity and futility of the justice system, the police system, the rehabilitation system. These are people whose whole lives revolve around getting the next fix, people whose entire world centres upon drugs, and getting some, stealing some, killing for some.

In North America (and most the world, I guess), the undercurrent is always race. Leave the blacks for the inner cities, while the whites will commute to their jobs in downtown Atlanta and Dallas and Boston and Baltimore, and get the hell out of Dodge come quitting time.

I see it in America, I see it in urban Canada, and I see it in Africa, especially, Rwanda and Sudan, particularly. The bottom line: Black lives are devalued. (Doesn't take a rocket science to see it that way.) That's the nasty truth that politicians will never divulge. Our people, our politicians, my countrymen, collectively, when it comes right down to it, don't give a flying fu-- what happens to the dark-skinned poor, be they in Canada or America or Cambodia or Rwanda. That's the only explanation I can come to.

(Not that it's necessarily conscious, or pre-ordained, or inherently malevolent; indifference has its own unseen escalation, its own blind, alarming evil.)

I'm not trying to present myself as some do-gooder, a noble white, the enlightened one. (If that's the way I come across, I'll take the blame. And hell, maybe it's a valid criticism, to some extent. I sometimes think I should go back home and just go teach English or rudimentary Japanese to the kids in the schools at Jane and Finch, and then I think 'you precious bastard, like they need a white person like you to help them along'. I feel stupid for thinking of the idea, then stupid for feeling stupid. It's just that I come from a world that was pretty white-bread, and I've seen the world, lived in Japan, lived in Cambodia, and I'm trying, in my own way, to piece together what I've seen and feel; trying to reconcile the harsh reality of the world with the Leave It To Beaver suburban environment that molded me, for better or for worse.)

I don't have any answers.

And, to some extent, it goes beyond race, this indifference to the development of those on a lower scale than ourselves. There's something primal in the way we react to poverty, the way we flinch from it, the way we divert our movement and our attention from its nasty grip.

In Phnom Penh, it's in your face, every day, but you can still look away. Back home, ifyou're lucky, you can do more than look away -- you can move away, and see its aftereffects only on the evening news, in between Wheel of Fortune and Everbody Loves Raymond. You can react to poverty only as a theoretical concept, if you so choose, as an ideology, even, rather than as the stinking, putrid mess that it is, a living, breathing organism that consumes you and spits you out and moves on to the next piece of prey.

I just know that generations of people, be they black or white or Hispanic or Sudanese or Khmer, are screwed from the get-go. Yes, yes, yes -- there will always be those who can overcome adversity. I have confidence in the individual; I have the belief that we can rise above our circumstances.

But I also know this:

There are schools in West Baltimore, and there are schools on Jane Street and Finch street in Toronto, and there are (a few) schools somewhere near the slum near my house in Phnom Penh, and, to be honest, I don't think very many successful people care one way or another what goes on inside of them, or what happens to them. And I can bet you that these schools' books suck, their facilities blow, and that their teachers, overworked and good souls that they are, do not have the means to deal with a situation that seems to be deteriorating decade by decade, year by year.

Who do we blame?

Where do we start?

I don't have any answers.

But maybe if we keep asking the questions, that's a start? A small one, true, but a start nevertheless?

Or am I dreaming?

Tell me I'm not.

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