The International District
Sometimes, a name IS important.
For many years, a certain area of Albuquerque was known as the "War Zone," not just informally, but actually in Albuquerque Police Department communications and reports – it was a collection of lower-income neighborhoods, with a very large population of immigrants, and an extremely high crime rate, exacerbated by much gang activity.
But then things began to change.
The changes started out small. Some of the residents of the area started to get together. They started to pressure the city for better street lighting – or at least for the city to maintain the street lights that existed but seemed never to get fixed when they broke. The people wanted other street safety measures as well – more speed-limit signs, and speed humps, roundabouts, and other "traffic calming" measures, things that would discourage drive-by shootings and also make drivers drive more carefully, so it would be safer for kids to play outside.
Somewhere along the way, the area residents also decided that they did not want the place they lived to be known as the "War Zone." They went to the City Council, and they got the name "War Zone" officially deleted from the police department's vocabulary. Instead, they promoted the use of the term "International District," to emphasize the richness and diversity of all of the different cultures, both American and immigrant, that live in the area.
At the time, my response was, "Yeah, right." Like changing the name of that area would really make the crime go away. Like no longer calling it the War Zone would make it no longer be one. Like the wonderfully New-Agey "International District" would magically be full of peace and light.
As it turns out, the residents of the area were willing to go beyond the semantics and well-meaning thoughts that so often characterize outsiders' attempts to improve the quality of life in less-privileged communities. They did it themselves. With inspiration that came from people within the community, they got organized. They put pressure on the city to provide infrastructure. They formed neighborhood watches that cooperated with the police to get crime under control. They formed neighborhood associations where everybody got to know everybody else, and they got to caring about their neighbors and wanting to help each other out and work together. They got together in work parties to clean up the neighborhoods and refurbish the decaying community center. They put together a community garden.
Now, as one of my students who lives in the area says, it's a safe, happy place for children to play. And even at night, after the children have gone to bed, it's not the same as it used to be. In the past, once darkness fell, the streets belonged to the gangs. Now, people are out in the streets, and there's life. Vans and pushcarts sit on street corners and sell tacos and tortas and such, and there are plenty of customers out. It feels like what I imagine an ethnic neighborhood in a big city might feel like – socialization, togetherness, community.
Sometimes a name really DOES matter.