Reverse Redlining

I often hear Allentown expats emphatically say that our city has changed. By hearing this repeatedly and carefully examining the context in which those words are uttered, I have found that this is a racist and classist code pointing to the increased number of Spanish speaking people and the increased visibility of people who are economically fragile who now occupy the city in which many ‘decent white middle class people’ have chosen to no longer live. Saying that Allentown has changed is an attempt to preserve white middle class privilege.

When things change, we often feel compelled to selfishly judge the circumstances according to our own values, beliefs, and needs. Why can’t we just observe, learn, absorb, and embrace rather than judge and distance ourselves?

I have many fond memories of center city Allentown. My grandmother owned Zipf’s candy and gift shop on Hamilton Mall. One summer, I stayed over at her house and we rode the bus to work together. It was the first time I felt really grown up. I loved to help out in the store and to be downtown amidst all of the interesting people. My sister had her first apartment in that building and I had fun visiting her and her boyfriend (then husband, now ex-husband) there. When I graduated from high school, I went downtown and opened my first checking and savings accounts at one of the banks at center square. It was the second time that I felt really grown up. Going downtown was always exciting to me, and it still is. While I no longer spend a significant amount of time downtown, I do like to go there often, usually to visit Symphony Hall or the Allentown Art Museum. Each visit leads me to recall many fond childhood memories and creates new ones.

I, too, am an Allentown expat. I left involuntarily while a high school student in 1991 and, while I did attend Allentown Business School and worked in several locations throughout the city, I have not lived there since. I am planning to move back as soon as I am financially able to.

Many people who would like to live in Allentown are warned not to buy a home there particularly because of the high rate of crime and the perception of the public school system. This is exactly why I need to move back home. Rather than excluding myself from the blessed pain of life, I plan to become an active citizen and to find ways to share what I hope to become a contagious sense of pride in our community. I could never wish for my child to have something relatively better than another mother’s child. I would rather intentionally bring people together so that we can work for the future of our community than further exclude and divide people based on arbitrary demographics.

Yes, Allentown has changed, and thank goodness so have I.

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2 thoughts on “Reverse Redlining

  1. Very interesting and insightful post. It strikes me too that there is another human factor very much at work here; the fear of the “other”. This easily manifests itself as a sort of racism, but it is also just as much a fear of change, with “others” seen as different, and potentially threatening.

    There is a truth that a small number of criminals have begun to use the city as a safe haven from their bad history in the south bronx and other such tough streets, including the export of drug trade to new territory. But! The great majority of newcomers are just trying for a better, more affordable life in Allentown, seeing a future here.

    Its easy to forget that Allentown was built on the hard work and hopes newcomers, immigrants from many countries
    who often were looked down upon until their children as second generation citizens “made good”.

    How we deal positively with the fear of the “other” is always vital in building a vibrant city, any city. Food, the arts, celebration of cultures in the day-to-day, so many ways to address this. Running away to the amorphous, anonymous suburbs is never the answer. Yet that’s usually where the ignorance is greatest, as in “oh, Allentown I’d be afraid ever go there after dark!”…or, “Isn’t it a shame what’s happened to Allentown, it used to be so nice when (insert sappy nostaligic memory of shopping at Hess’s, etc.)”…completely unfounded ignorance of today’s city.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments – it’s great to hear feedback from a fellow Allentonian! I agree that fear of change and fear of the other are very much a part of this phenomenon…thanks so much for adding that to the conversation!

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