[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our newly-released collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]
Denis Ruiz is a 50-year-old computer programmer who lives with his wife and daughter near Philadelphia. A short time before I interviewed him, he learned he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. He was in significant pain at the start of our conversation, and I wasn’t sure he could complete it, but as the interview progressed his voice grew stronger, and his manner became that of a healthy man.
I grew up in the 1950s in a little town called Fairview Village in south Jersey. It was a planned community designed by a fellow named Litchfield, and offered a pleasant environment for people who worked in the shipyard in nearby Camden. Fairview Village had what you could call garden community architecture. Brick houses were attached to each other in clusters of four, and sometimes two, so the houses were in rows, but the rows were broken up. The houses all had yards, and there were common areas on every block where they didn’t build houses. Some blocks had no houses at all; there was just grass and trees. Neighbors would walk their dogs, and kids would play football.
People planted lovely oak trees, so by the time I lived there the trees were mature, maybe sixteen to eighteen inches in diameter. There was a town square with park benches, and people would sit and talk and get to know each other, and there were stores and businesses. It was a socially and economically self-contained unit. Looking back on it, the neighborhood where I grew up seems idyllic, with its parks and shaded streets. In fact, one fellow who had lived in England remarked that Fairview Village was like a little English town.
In the late 1950s, economic changes had a big effect on my hometown. The shipyard folded, as did an iron and forge plant where a lot of people worked. So the town was weakened. But I think it would have rebounded by the end of the 1970s as other businesses reflecting the change away from industrialization came into that area—like the business I am in, the computer business. But that never happened because a second process was at work: the integration of non-whites.
Before it became illegal, realtors in Fairview Village showed houses only to white families. Although this has been painted as unfair, it reflected the desires of the people who lived there. They wanted to live among their own people. They wanted to live in a white community. Now, I see this as the highest form of self-determination: people defining their own community, deciding what comes into their collective lives, determining their own standards.
It doesn’t matter if their standards don’t seem rational or moral to someone else. People have a right to decide who they will live with. This is not a matter of rationality or of morality. It is simply human. It’s not that they have ill will toward anyone; it’s just that they know what atmosphere they like. When realtors screened people and showed houses only to whites, it wasn’t a dark conspiracy. They were being true to the community, part of the community. But, of course, the issue was never defined this way, and in the late ’60s–early ’70s lawsuits forced realtors to sell houses to blacks and anyone else who wanted to move in.
A lot of the blacks who moved in have been “section eights.” Section eight is part of a law according to which the government helps pay the rent for poor minorities, so they can afford to move into white areas. “Section eight” has turned out to be deadly poison for the Fairview Village of my youth.
The neighborhood where I grew up is now a wasteland. Whites are still a majority—55 percent—but Fairview Village has gone the way of a typical urban black area. When I was living there, when a tree died, an Irish guy named Fred Fagan would plant a new one. Now, those saplings are mighty trees. When a tree dies these days, no one plants a new one. There is broken glass everywhere, and things like busted up shopping carts block the alleys. Many of the old brick houses are covered with some kind of awful siding. When I was a kid, people made repairs and restorations in the mode of the architecture of the town. Now, the houses are all different, from one to the next, and there is no common thread to their appearance. There used to be hedges and white picket fences that lent a common feel to the area—no more.
My mother still lives there. When I get out of my car I wonder, “Is this an ambush? Is someone going to jump me?” Recently, a black teenager knocked my mother to the ground injuring her, and took her purse. This sort of thing was unheard of in the old neighborhood, but it is common now. The black woman across the street was just arrested for robbing 7-Eleven stores.
When I was growing up, kids could go anywhere in town. We could go in the woods and explore down by the creek. Now, you would never allow your child even to walk around the block. Just this year, two black men abducted a young white woman, took her where we used to play ball, and raped, and murdered her. Heinous crimes happen regularly there.
There is no sense of connectedness among the people in my old hometown. A white teenager hanged himself in his bedroom. The word is he spent a lot of time alone, listening to rap music. So much popular music these days is dark and sinister, and for someone already on the edge, as I assume this kid was, that can be deadly. In the old days, the risk of a terrible thing like this was much less. Back then, this boy would have had a supportive white community and way of life.
Back in 1967 or so, I listened to Jim Morrison—he was the lead singer of the Doors—and took what he sang very seriously, as if he were Keats or Walt Whitman or somebody like that. I remember one Morrison song—I think it was “Alabama.” The message was, “I must have whiskey or your wife.” It was about drunks going from house to house looking for alcohol and sex, and there is Morrison recasting it in a way that glamorized and legitimized scum of the earth. That was what I was taking in. But I lived in a place that counteracted that poison. I had something the boy down the street didn’t have. I had a community.
The place I live in now, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, was clean and safe when my wife and I moved here 15 years ago, but the pattern of my childhood home has been repeated. Non-whites have moved in, and the neighborhood has deteriorated drastically. Before, there was a fair number of poor white people, but they were never a problem.
We have problems now, and I increasingly find this isn’t a suitable place for my family. It doesn’t reflect our heritage and values. The Catholic school here pushes multiracialism and doesn’t emphasize academic excellence. My daughter, who went there for a time, told us the black boys were aggressive, and that she didn’t like them. That didn’t come from us; we hadn’t said a word to her about race. We learned first hand, and the hard way, that these liberal, multicultural schools don’t work. We realized that we wanted a school of our own flavor. The school that provides the closest thing to a European-type education is unfortunately 35 miles from where we live. So, every day, either my wife or I drive 35 miles there and back. At the same time, because of the expansion of office parks, what used to be a nine-mile drive to my work is now a 25-mile drive.
What this means is that there is no neighborhood here for me at all. A neighborhood is where your friends are, and where your kids go to school, and where you work—that’s what makes a neighborhood. Our people like to be bound to the earth. I need to belong to a certain soil, to a certain locality, and I need to stay in that locality, and for that process to go on for generations. I really believe that my desire to be grounded—literally—is a basic white or European impulse. There are cultural factors working against us, like increased consumerism and individualism, and there’s the globalization of the economy. But whatever is going on, I have to go to some other part of the region to find work. I feel like a migrant worker.
A lot of whites have been building gigantic houses on three-quarter-acre lots in the far reaches of the suburbs, and this makes them pretty much impervious to encroachment; blacks are not going to go there. But these white people lose in the process, too, because they have to own a $350,000 house, and they are paying out of their ears to keep up with the mortgage. All that money could be used to have a richer life on another level with their children and family. If they lived in an old-style house, they could get by on one salary. They wouldn’t have to work two jobs. If they could build a simple three bedroom semi-detached house in a town like the one I grew up in, where the lots are small and there are little gardens and walkways and so on, they could have something affordable, and experience something really worthwhile: living in a tight-knit community of white people.
Because of what has happened to the neighborhood, if my wife and I move we won’t get more than we paid for our house fifteen years ago. Without those changes, I would be in much better financial shape. At one time, my mother’s house was a desirable property, but it is worth very little now. I don’t want to end up like my mother, or in a situation like the one I’m in now, where the neighborhood is declining, and I have to either stay and feel trapped or get out.
I’d like to grow apple trees, and it takes years to do that, and you can’t take trees with you when you move. So we are probably going to rent near where I work, and also buy a rural place and go there on the weekends and fix it up. When I retire in fifteen years we’ll move there.
What I would really like to do is turn back the clock 50 years. I have been going to homesteading sites on the Internet, and reading homesteading magazines to get guidance and inspiration. I’m reading about people who are forming small communities in places like Kentucky, and I correspond with people who are actually doing this, to get a sense of what homesteading entails and what their lives are like. They are all white, and though they don’t talk about race, I suspect there is a racial impulse behind what they are doing, at least to some extent. Some homesteaders in rural Pennsylvania have invited me to visit, which I plan to do when I get over my current health problem.
It saddens me to think that I can no longer live where my mother lives and where I grew up. There would be nothing more rewarding than to have a property like that passed down to me in the condition it was once in. Everywhere my family has lived in, we made improvements, such as putting in a nice garden or gutting the walls and putting in new sheet rock, and improving the drainage. Over decades, these changes add up to significant improvements: a better garden, a vineyard, fruit trees, a nice deck. By staying in one place, your property improves and you improve the community, and you form deep, lasting connections with people. That is the way our ancestors in Europe lived. They were tied to a place. I feel that I am all the time planting and that I am never going to get the harvest; that I am never going to live in a true community.
I talked with my daughter about the country place I’m thinking about buying or building. I asked her, “If Mom and I build a place like that, would you like to stay there, live there after we are gone?” She said yes, she would. She is only seventeen years old, but I think she understands the costs of having to pick up and start over, and she doesn’t want to get into that pattern. That house will reflect 20 years of our labor. We will plant gardens and fruit trees and a vineyard, and make improvements. And we will be in a community where we are with people who see the world as we do, and we will know people and they will know us. And then we will give the house to our daughter. I’ll bet when my wife and I pass on she won’t just sell it and move. She will consider it the place where she should live, and she’ll build on it herself. My sickness has come out of nowhere, but once I get over this, I’m going to get that house.
Denis didn’t get the house. He died a few months after telling me this.