by Santiago Tito Rivera Jr.
I’m honored to have the opportunity to share with you a brief exploration of what life is like in SouthSide Bethlehem, where I live and call home. While there are many who are active voices in this community, few seem to understand the roots causes of the sustained poverty that exists here, not only here in several neighborhoods of SouthSide, but in every City that has a section of town that is considered a ghetto. While the roots of this word take us to a very dark place at a very dark time in human history, many of my neighbors and friends see the ghetto as home, and therefore, with affection and hope, speak of being “ghetto” as an honorary rite of passage into a class of people who have survived many generations of struggle against poverty, oppression, and corruption.
If we are to sustain anything worthwhile we must engage the poor, not flee from them.
There are those who see it differently. I’ve heard many a bougie elitist Bethlehemite speak of the poor people in the area as a lazy, dirty, and corrupt people who are only in poverty because they want to be. A people who deservingly must have valid reasons for being denied access to the same privileges afforded to academics, students, entrepreneurs and others who have rightfully earned their positions of privilege and access. Once a criminal or drug addict, always, and only a fool would allow a person steeped in personal struggles to participate in the fragile social network that is leading the economic, social, and cultural renaissance taking place in the SouthSide today.
Here’s an example. Have you ever heard about the on-going tension between residents of “Five Points” and Lehigh University students? Maybe not. So I’ll fill in a few blanks for you. For as far back as I can remember, an undercurrent to the social life in SouthSide are attacks by residents on students and faculty. For many years this has been going on, but not until last year did I start to get answers from students and residents alike as to what they thought the origins were.
Living on SouthSide, I was surprised to see how hostile and distant students and faculty are towards residents. This was the first place I ever lived where, in passing, students are scared to say hello. I wondered what the heck those in academia are saying about us residents. I think I’m a pretty normal person. I’m a student myself and would love to engage other students in friendly dialogue. But then I heard the other side of the story. How biased law enforcement allows students to get away with things that residents wouldn’t dare do. How reckless intoxicated students will provoke conflict, make racial slurs, and seem to have the resources to get away with it time and again. Statistics and newspaper reports just never seem to be able to bring to light what’s really going on. Why has this been allowed to go on for so long without a public forum for dialogue between both sides of the issue?
Another example. Since coming to SouthSide, I’ve witnessed a slow and gradual improvement in facades, business development, training, and cultural opportunities. I moved here with the intent of participating in the renaissance of SouthSide, benefitting from gossip of this place having the best water, safe neighborhoods, and ongoing community activities for families. I’ve attended many meetings, events, and witnessed how little resources are invested in engaging the working poor. The same rhetoric. “They don’t participate because they don’t want to” is used to justify why the same small group of people are engaged in the SouthSide Vision.
There are doors and windows of opportunity all around, but the keys to those doors are only distributed to those bred demographically or psychologically into an elite class. Windows are opened and closed before the average person even knows there was an opportunity there to begin with.
Poverty, oppression, and corruption leave SouthSide residents vulnerable: since we arrived to SouthSide I’ve met active gang members from at least five of the country’s top gangsta nations selling every type of illegal drug and product imaginable. Prostitution, rape, bullying, racism, and more I dare not list for fear of becoming a ‘person of interest’ are currently being practiced right here in beautiful SouthSide! Not that visitors to SouthSide are even aware of any of it. It’s invisible to them. But watch out now. Let’s not shut down hope or eliminate real possibilities for getting out of poverty and the problems that go with it. Let’s not open Pandora’s Box!
These revelations only skim the surface of what life is like for an average young person in SouthSide. All the pandering and tokening aside, most poor and working poor people are too disenfranchised, disconnected, and disadvantaged to participate in the opportunities that are available. I’ve heard it said that you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members.
Can we not discover how to facilitate breakthroughs for the entrenched class of poor? Those families and individuals suffering the residual effects of slavery or oppression by a variety of means (psychological, social, or spiritual) must be treated with care and love for it is in these homes of despair that the worst our society has to offer may be birthed. Too often I see a young person with no knowledge of self, no connection to their community, and with the weight of the world on their shoulders walking along hoping the person at the next corner has a cigarette or quarter to spare. If we are to sustain anything worthwhile we must engage the poor, not flee from them.
Tito is a resident and active promoter of the SouthSide community. A lifelong leader of the Hip-Hop Culture Community in eastern PA, he works with the people of ghetto communities to develop solutions that address the needs of the poor. He is working on his first book, The 12 Elements of Global Hip-Hop Culture and a multimedia edutainment project.
(Published in the 2012 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)