Monday, January 14, 2013

There and Back Again: the Hobbit Run? Yeah, No, Not When "There" Was a Corner Store

The timer was set at 15 minutes to signal the turnaround. The plan was a 30-minute run, out and back. My goal is to get faster, so the run included "light-pole intervals," making this a fartlek through the neighborhoods of West Akron.

Never one to properly judge distances, my planned route was to run down one street and turn back when my watch went off. Unfortunately, that one street wasn't long enough, and so I ended up on another that took me toward what I perceive to be a rougher area of the city.

As my run took me closer toward this part of town, I kept checking my watch to see if I could turn around yet. And maybe I need to confront the uncomfortable topic of racial stereotypes. I was a pasty white guy running through a predominately black neighborhood.

Crime is an unfortunate aspect of living in a city, and our neighborhood became a pretty big target a few months ago. Our block started up a Neighborhood Watch program, and Mrs. Viper and I invested in a home security system. The crime seems to have tapered off, for now, but I still follow the police blotter to track the activity within our local boundaries.

Where I was running is -- not a high crime area, per se, but what I'd call a "more crime" area. Logically, I know I'm not much of a target when I'm running. I don't carry much. Want my $25 Timex? Here you go. My smartphone? It's yours; the battery will be dead in 20 minutes anyway.

In my rational mind, I know I was racial profiling this neighborhood. I hate that these thoughts even cross my mind. I enjoy living in an area with cultural diversity. But sometimes the fear of the unknown manifests itself as ugly prejudice. I don't like that about myself.

My watch beeped to turnaround a block past a neighborhood convenience store, the ubiquitous "corner store" found in most urban areas. People were out and about because of course they were. It was 60 degrees outside. In Northeast Ohio, you have to savor these breaks in bad weather.

Over the last couple years, the notion of "community" has become a more important concept in my life. This idea grew from my interaction with the local old-time music community and playing the banjo. This wasn't the first community I've associated myself with, nor will it be the last. What I realized by running through my surrounding area was that I need to get more in touch with the community of my neighborhood.

Though I was a mere half-mile from home, running down that street felt totally foreign. That alien feeling resulted in "fight or flight" instincts and suppressed racism.

The issues of race and class, and the inherent xenophobia these subjects elicit, are at the heart societal unrest in the United States. We try to promotes ourselves as some idealistic embodiment of human progress, but there are some rotten bones in the closet.

Running started as something I did to better myself. That quest is never ending. A run serves as an effective tool for personal discovery, even if what I find is unpleasant. The first step of solving any problem is identifying the problem.

My run was good. My pace was almost 10 minutes per mile on the nose over what turned out to be 3.12 miles in 31:10, marked improvement from previous efforts this young year. I'm going to run through that same neighborhood again, and I'm going to work on maximizing my physical fitness and minimizing my mental unfitness.


KW said...

I loved the sentence...oh you want my smartphone? It's yours; the battery will be dead in 20 minutes. HA!

As a woman, I'm constantly afraid and stereotyping. Rough looking guy (no matter color) coming my way is automatically homeless and I go in a zen state to not think about this weird guy in front of me. Any male that crosses the street now has become a target of my worry. I'm looking back hurting my neck and well forgetting the music or pace or scenery sometimes. I love running in the city, because of the running trails they have set up. However, sometimes, it's just scary. Does it stop me? Nah! And sometimes, I give my candy to the homeless.

Nitmos said...

What color is your watch?

misszippy said...

Great final sentence. I happen to live in one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the country, and I always think of myself as above the fray when it comes to profiling, but I suppose there are certain neighborhoods where I too would have a sense of discomfort. And that sense of discomfort probably comes from heading into neighborhoods of a predominantly different color. And it makes me mad that I ever feel that way. I still run there, but I still have that sense of unease, wrongly so.

misszippy said...

Oh, and you better believe that my brother and dad are cheering loudly for New England this weekend!

Just Jen said...

I totally understand what you mean. I am on the East side of Akron and have the same thoughts as I am running the streets. I sometimes go out in early morning and have to fight the fear of some darkness. I tend to stick with the routes and roads I know. Makes me feel a little more secure in my own little sense.
I try to say hi to all I pass , sort of building that friendly neighborhood spirit , but not all respond. I at least feel better trying.

Carolina John said...

I'm not surprised anymore by what I discover while running. Just when I think I've seen it all, there's racism. Raleigh has some rough parts of town too, and I find myself in those neighborhoods sometimes. It happens to everyone.

B. Jarosz said...

I won't try to suggest a simple answer to what is a complex problem. But I will say that you're already one step ahead of the game by noticing, and being concerned about, the way you felt in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

We ALL struggle with preconceived notions. Some are there to keep us safe. (Don't walk over to the van, in a dark parking lot, where a couple of creepy-looking-people are calling you to "come closer" so they can ask for directions.) And some are just a vestige of the stereotypes we see plastered across the 6 o'clock news every day.

The tough part is knowing the difference.

If the neighborhood really is a hotbed of crime and drive-by shootings, it's not intrinsically wrong to look for another route.

If the neighborhood really isn't crime-ridden, and it's just uncomfortable because it's unfamiliar... well then maybe it's time to start picking up your milk and bread at that corner store so you can get to know those neighbors a little better?

Anonymous said...

Running knows only three colors - red when you fall, and black and blue from those other falls that don't break the skin!

Robin said...

The best part of this story is reading that you had a good run and are back out there more consistently!