(about elitism, privilege, affluence, separation, perspective, and community)
Consider yourself warned. If you step inside Goodale Park, you expose yourself to a powerful environment that will probably change you. Like water flowing over stone, the park will begin to wear away the edges of your elitism, and just might increase your empathy.
Recently this Goodale Park phenomenon was profoundly clarified for me, and in the process my own elitism was challenged. A couple of weeks ago I drove my car out of our garage, and suddenly felt an uncomfortable sense of privilege.
We used to have a gravel off-street parking area, and I connected with my neighbors much more often back then. But that day, I drove out of a garage, and I felt kind of weird. I felt uncomfortably privileged because of something Paul Piff said during an NPR interview. Here’s his insight that shifted my perspective, and ultimately got me thinking about its relationship to Goodale Park:
“[Affluence might] mean that you can afford a different kind of home. Maybe it means you can afford a bigger home where the people in your family would all occupy separate bedrooms. You’ll have a bigger yard, potentially, or more space between your house and other people’s homes.
“When you go to work, you may be less likely to take that bus or that carpool. And with that…increased self-focus, that increased control, you become less attuned to other people in your environment, less cooperative, less ethical, a whole slew of other things.”
I realized that this was about me. I realized that privilege was indirectly separating me from other people. The next day I rode my bicycle to work, partly due to my brand-new fresh guilt, and partly because it was a nice day for my weekly bike commute. On my ride, I noticed in a new way that it felt different from the car ride – I was aware that I felt closer to the people in the corridor of my commuting community.
In that seven-mile corridor that comprises my regular biking commute, I expose myself to a broad range of environments, including downtown Columbus, some streets with boarded-up buildings, a wooded stream bike trail, and opulent homes. Throughout these environments, the people I meet on the bike trail and streets are friendly, and the journey feels much calmer than the drive in my car.
Paul Piff’s interview also pushed me to finally make good on a failed goal I had set for myself years ago – to ride the COTA bus to work. I finally did it (and continued to do it), and what I have found as I’ve been riding the #2 from High & Buttles to Main & Drexel is a truly diverse and kind community of people who overwhelmingly greet, support, and engage each other. I’m embarrassed to say that five weeks ago I would have described many of the people on the bus as “sketchy”. But when I allowed our separation to be removed, I was transformed.
These “affluence separations” have been impairing relationships ever since back in the day when the first person with enough resources moved upstream from the river villages so they could avoid the human waste-contaminated water. Later, people with resources moved out of cities to avoid plagues. And more recently, people with more resources moved to suburbs. These wealthier people have often moved for a reason other than separation from the less affluent, but that has been the result. And that leads to a loss of empathy.
Goodale Park brings people together. There is no fence or gate that functionally excludes anyone. All are welcome. With some minor exceptions, there are no walls or doors that keep me from meeting you there. When dogs and owners gather, there are no indicators of anyone’s socioeconomic level, career, or status. There is no dress code. When volunteers gather on workdays, we come together as equals to improve the park, and we pull weeds and plant annuals side by side.
My bicycle commute covers areas where people live close together, and also areas where people live in separate and “protected” spaces, including homes with private golf greens and privacy gates. I think that Paul Piff is right; wealth really does seem to separate us. When I allow myself the privileges that wealth affords, then by necessity I create an environment that separates me from anyone whom I don’t intentionally allow into my world.
I’m not planning to give up my house, my car, or my garage – several aspects of my life that systemically separate me from others. But I hope that engagement with the members of my community can wear away the edges of my elitism in places like the bike path, the bus, our sidewalks, and in Goodale Park – places where we can be together.