Field Trip to the Ghet-to

by Joe Dobrow ©1992


It is a cool day in early April, too cool (I decide) to walk, so I hop in my car and drive the short mile to school, as I have done many times before. I circle the block once or twice in search of an unmetered slot, and end up parking in a marginal area where I hope it will be safe — but I have become so accustomed to this routine, so conditioned to this mindset, that it is all just slightly beneath my consciousness. I have locked the doors and am out of the car and am walking away in an instant. The wind is indeed biting, and I am glad to have had a few minutes in the warm car.

We are going on a field trip this day, the first field trip I have been on in many years, perhaps the last one I will ever take. There are 12 or 15 of us, graduate students of urban politics, and we are going to explore the city of New Haven. It is not intended to be a lot of fun.

Still, as we board the chartered school bus we are giddy with delight, remembering the days when we used to climb aboard such vehicles with lunch boxes and permission slips, on our way to the Science Exhibit or the History Museum, certain that at the end of the trip Mommy would be waiting to pick us up. We think about these things and laugh as we wait for our bus to leave. The sun is pouring through the windows, and I unzip my Lands’ End jacket. Across the aisle, someone sips a Diet Coke.

I have been told about this trip, given fair warning by someone who took it several years ago. On that occasion the bus did not show up, and the group set out on foot. And as they walked down Mansfield Street toward the Elm Haven housing project, this group of budding upper middle class political scientists and sociologists, a black man of comparable age sat on the stoop of a building and watched them. And as they passed in front he said aloud, to no one in particular, “What’s this? A field trip to the ghet-to?” And the intrepid argonauts had to say to themselves Yes, that’s exactly what it was.

The bus is driven by a black man with an accent, perhaps Jamaican, and he seems to know exactly where we are going. He does not say much, so he must hear everything we are saying, every question we are asking our professor.

“What is the mix in this neighborhood?” someone inquires as we pass through Fairhaven. “It doesn’t look too bad,” someone else says with an intonation of surprise.

We are less than two miles away from our own homes and classrooms, yet it is as if we are in a foreign land. Terra incognita. Our eyes pan the windows left and right, taking it all in, and we see mothers with strollers, a sizeable grocery store, Spanish graffiti splashed across a wall. It is startling to see such bustle in an area we did not even know existed.

“Up there on the right,” the professor says, “is Palm Beach Pizza, and it’s pretty good.” I try to imagine myself venturing out some night to see if he’s right. I cannot.

The bus rolls on and we reach an area that has been described as “very unstable.” “What does that mean?” someone asks. “Violent crime? Gangs?” I am somehow embarrassed by these questions, and find myself reflexively looking into the driver’s rear view mirror for some sign of judgment, but I cannot detect any.

“Yeah, violent crime, gangs” the professor nods affirmatively, and he adds drugs and property crime to the list. He asks the driver to stop at one corner in order to point out the spot where not too long ago a 14-year-old was blown off of his bicycle to Kingdom Come by a shotgun. The professor used to be the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, and he saw this scene firsthand. He is obviously still affected by it. “It was over there, by that burned tree.” And the chatter in the bus stops, and we all look over at the tree like it was some kind of sacred monument. None of us asks how it got burned.

For the briefest moment, a scene pops into my head, a fragment of a thought, a dreamlet. We are in danger sitting here in this bus. A target. Random gunfire. The windows shatter. It is gone in an instant, sand through the fingers, nothing to grab onto; but there is no denying it came. It is, perhaps, easier to be open-minded in action than in thought.

We swing by the Maritime Center, a very modern-looking office park, and hear the story of how it was developed; but this does not interest us. We are not here to see office buildings.

My mind starts to drift off, and all of a sudden it is 1974 and I am on a field trip to the Bronx Zoo with my Long Island schoolmates. I am horsing around during lunch, and inadvertently bump into a couple of black kids who are obviously from somewhere else. They do not like this, and they pin me up against a glass wall, and for the rest of the afternoon they follow us around and kick us and call us names. I am scared, as scared as I have ever been. I just want to get on the bus and out of the Bronx and back to Long Island. Mommy will be waiting for me, and everything will be alright….

The professor points to his left to direct our attention to the Hill District. I snap to attention. I have heard of the Hill, heard bad things, but I have never been there. I did not even know where it was until now. The professor explains that the busy road beside us, a highway really, was built in order to drive a wedge between the Hill and the downtown area. Again I find myself turning to look for reaction, this time to the two black students seated near me on the bus. I wonder why I am doing this.

We pass through the Westville neighborhood, with its new tennis stadium and its big homes. “Oh, okay, now I know where we are,” someone says. And so do almost all of us. There is no need for the professor to point out our location on the map he has taped to the rear doors of the bus. There is an almost audible release of tension now that there are trees and grass and the familiar signs of middle classdom around us. “There are some nice parts of New Haven,” we tell ourselves with renewed assurance, and the din on the bus picks up a few decibels.

Soon we come out on Whalley Avenue and I glance to the west. I have recently learned that Woodbridge is off in this direction, and that there are some good bicycle trails out there, and I intend to explore them soon. I think back to the first day I spent in New Haven, poking around and exploring on my own. I didn’t make it to Woodbridge or Hamden or Orange that day, and I sat down in my hotel room to write my parents a letter, something I seldom ever do. I told them that my first impressions of this new place were not good, that there were dangerous neighborhoods all around and that sirens were blaring everywhere. Everything would be okay, I told them, as soon as I could get into my apartment and establish my little enclave.

We pass Orchard Street, an enclave of its own, one which I associate with random shootings because of a national television story I saw years ago. I have not ever been on Orchard Street.

So far, except in the commercial areas, we have not seen very many people on this field trip. It is the middle of the afternoon, and I am starting to wonder whether everyone is out, or everyone is in. The Diet Coke can is now rattling around on the floor every time the bus makes a turn.

Now we are back in terra incognita, some wooded area the professor has described as a “thumb” of land not on our map, the West Rock neighborhood. And here, out here in the middle of nowhere, we come upon a housing project, and then another, and still a third. “You know, for projects, these don’t really look all that bad,” someone says. And I instantly agree, even though I have seldom seen any others. But the professor has been here before, and he knows better. “Think of these people out here. No amenities. Can you imagine what life is like for them without a car? This is the worst of rural Appalachia combined with the worst of urban living.” And again, I instantly agree. I do not seem to have the ability to form opinions of my own.

The bus heads down the dead end street right into the projects, and it is like a slow motion scene from one of those Hollywood tearjerkers, with the face in the bus window making sad eye contact with the face on the street as it passes on by. Everything comes to a standstill. Two boys playing on the cracked macadam stop to look. An old woman on the porch just stares out. Another woman in her doorway, about to shake out a rug, stands motionless. We are watching them, and they are watching us. We feel…what? Threatened? No. More like “intruding.” They know why we are here, because this driveway does not lead anywhere, and because buses with white graduate students never come up here, and because they can see the expressions on our faces. We have come to make a field trip to the “ghet-to.” And in so doing, we have reminded them — probably for the first time in days or weeks — that they live in the “ghet-to.” We could not feel worse.

“Oh my God, look at the little kids,” someone on the bus whispers sympathetically. And we see a couple of kids, cute kids, four year olds maybe, playing with some sticks on what barely passes for a lawn. We think they do not know they live in squalor. We would like to reach out a hand to help, but there are walls, monstrously large walls, that seem to separate us.

“I’ve come to expect bars on the windows in the inner city,” someone else whispers, “but here, I just can’t believe it. It’s like a prison.” And we look over and see wrought iron bars on a first-floor window.

Off to one side is an abandoned school, a modern school, probably built in the 70s. It is low to the ground, like a bunker, but its walls are now covered with graffiti. Across the way is a group of three or four teenage boys, one in a shoddy parka and a Raiders hat, drinking out of a bottle in a brown bag — just standing there, just hanging out, just watching this bus slowly moving by. I am transfixed by them, and I look very hard, but I cannot see myself. My life could never have been like that. They look back at me, these boys, and maybe they are thinking the very same thing. But they do not see me anymore than I see them; we only see what the other represents. And I know, in this tiny little vignette, this blink-of-an-eye in which I have dropped in on their lives, everything I need to know.

I am very eager to leave, but the bus is still moving very slowly, as if it were taking a group of tourists past the Jefferson Memorial or something. I wonder whether the driver is doing this intentionally or whether the professor has asked him to do it; either way, it is the hand of a very capable educator at the helm.

The field trip continues for another half-hour or so, to Dixwell to Newhallville… I really don’t know quite where. The professor talks about one thing or another, but I do not hear what he says. Soon the bus is back on crowded streets, and it’s safe to look out the windows without having anyone look back in. We arrive back at school, and I find my car safe and sound, and I realize that the only place I have really gone on this field trip is deep inside myself.

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