Over the past 24 years, I have lived in 4 different communities. When I was born, my family and I lived in a 3 family home on a busy street in Somerville. We were walking distance to my elementary school and some amazing restaurants and cafes in Inman Square. I always felt it was a safe neighborhood and many of my neighbors were Portuguese. Being a Brazilian family, we spent a lot of time chatting outdoors with them and visiting each others’ homes.
When my parents divorced, my mother moved us into a one family, 4 bedroom home on the other side of Somerville. It was a much more suburban area and there was plenty of backyard space for us. Frankly, I loved it. Having space, having access to outdoor playtime, and being able to have lots of friends and family over made a huge difference. Except, we barely talked to the neighbors now. There was definitely a sense of community on a safety level (everyone watched over the street and each other’s property), but I never went into my neighbor’s home for tea like we used to. However, it was always quiet, peaceful, and extremely safe. Of course, we were the only minorities in the area too.
When I became a teen parent, my mother kicked me out and I was forced to live with my boyfriend. He lived in East Somerville. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to hang out in East Somerville because that part of the city was always on the news. This section was primarily occupied by immigrants and the cost of living was much cheaper than any other part of town. It didn’t occur to me that I was in a danger zone until I woke up at 3 am one night to gunshots on our street. Someone was killed. I no longer felt that safety from the previous 17 years of my life. I began to stress a lot and was even too afraid to fall asleep at times. I saw a lot of alcoholics roaming the streets and knew that I couldn’t live like that much longer. It was physically beginnning to affect me. The thought of worrying whether I’d survive the walk from the front door to the car was one I couldn’t handle. There were times when drug addicts or gang members would randomly walk down our street and start picking on my boyfriend, even as me and my infant stood beside him. It was terrifying.
At 18, I moved to Newton where my father was living. I felt peace again. It was an all white neighborhood and once again, we were the only minorities. I could walk down the street at midnight and not feel threatened. I was able to sleep again. Finally, I was comfortable in an environment and I could start to de-stress. I have lived in Newton since and am glad I can raise my daughter in a community where safety isn’t a concern.
While the changes in the communities are obvious, I still can’t help but feel as though just moving to a safer neighborhood isn’t a solution. Yes, you can pick up your things and leave your community for another but not everyone has that option. And honestly, not everyone WANTS that option. Where you grew up, where your family lives, where you learned to ride your bike becomes a part of you. When you’ve been facing those issues from the beginning of your life, they don’t feel like issues anymore – they feel normal. That stress of wondering whether or not you’ll be safe is one that many of us have to live with everyday.
It’s not up to me to dictate what your community is supposed to look like and vice versa. We all have to determine what we want our communities to look like and push for that change. Whether we realize it or not, they do affect our health. The exposure to violence, the stress from not having enough money, the pollution around us, the lack of green space, the overpopulated buildings, the racial segregation, the discrimination, the quality of schools, and the social support around us effect our health. We can’t all just pick up and move, leaving the communities behind in tatters. We need to advocate for change and let people know that we are facing these issues and that these issues effect our ability to live. It’s not fair and it can’t stay silent.