Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
I live in the South Bronx. Jonathan Kozol says my neighborhood is two-thirds Hispanic and one-third black in Amazing Grace
, his best-selling sociological study on the lives of the children of the South Bronx. But I live here too. My great-grandparents came from Croatia and other pockets of Eastern Europe. I'm a white girl.
I didn't grow up in the South Bronx. I moved here in the paralyzing wake of returning to the U.S. after a year abroad. Unsure of what to do or where to go, with only the vague notion that what I wanted was not in my native rural Ohio but in a city, I came to New York. I landed a sublet in a two-bedroom apartment on the southernmost, rounded edge of the Bronx. The floors are hard wood and the ceilings could not be higher. My room is large enough that I can't touch my desk or dresser from my bed. The fastest train in the city stops two blocks from my stoop, getting me to Union Square in 20 minutes. My desk overlooks a spacious back yard, which according to my sister, resembles Azerbaijan
, with its brick, rubble, and bramble. Yes, people cringe or sometimes ask "why?" when I share my address, but today, as an educated but underemployed young person, the price is right and the people are pretty great.
Congressional District 16, which covers most of the South Bronx, has the highest poverty rate in the U.S., according to the 2005 American Community Survey. The area has yet to get over its heavy stigma started by the white flight, landlord abandonment, and government indifference of the 1970s. In his 1982 novel, The Dean's December
, Saul Bellow describes the South Bronx along with neighbors in urban decay, Cleveland and Detroit, as "no longer a location," but "a condition."
Over the last few years however, my neighborhood has embarked on a gradual transition into the category of up-and-coming. In sync with the growing trend of marketing previously less-than-desirable regions in the five boroughs, New York City real estate developers have come to know my address as "SoBro." A June 2005 front page article in The New York Times
boasts of the area's "...sidewalk dominoes games, flamboyant murals, lush vacant-lot gardens and restaurants with fried plantains and mango shakes." The article's sunny tone isn't too far off.
The place is a neighborhood and in neighborhoods, people acknowledge each other. Walking home from the train the other day, I heard something I remembered hearing a few months prior. Not quite a greeting, but a similarly sprite announcement made as I passed a long line of brownstones. The words "snow bunny." The first word said slow and the second, staccato. Long, then short, in a pitch that let on the speaker was smiling.
The first time I heard it, I was walking through the Kensington section of Philadelphia, a similar neighborhood in that there, I am also a visible minority. It was fall and I was wearing a fuzzy white sweater. At the time, I rationalized that, because of my choice in clothing, I must have looked like a rabbit, shrugging off mildly sexual undertone of the whole affair.
This time, packed under a winter jacket and scarf and nothing at all resembling the fur of a tundra animal, I grew suspicious. It was as if the comment was directed not just towards me, but to all the ears on the street. Having lived in West Africa, I'm familiar with the way a declaration of skin color can substitute for a proper name. In Ghana, the word that was slung to me by street vendors and bus drivers translates as either "white" or "foreigner," and is even used to describe a Ghanaian who has spent significant time out of the country. There, perhaps not unlike here, my status as a foreigner was marked by the obvious difference in my skin color. That very difference was my assignment of place, allowing me to belong by not belonging.
But back in the U.S., the "snow bunny" comment works similarly, as an acknowledgement or announcement of my presence in the South Bronx, the neighborhood I now call home. As a result, I find it all the more jarring.
Soon after I heard it the third time, I found myself framing my thoughts about the reoccurring comment as if I were a visitor in a foreign culture, and not in my own country, trying to figure it all out. What does it mean? White? Stranger? Foreigner? I thought cokehead, and then I thought snowboarder. Then I looked it up.
My fondness for the Oxford English Dictionary is now supplemented by Urban Dictionary
, an often absurd collection of slang defined by the people who use it or make it up. The site's best function is that each entry shows how many people agree and disagree with the word's meaning with thumbs up or thumbs down. With 178 thumbs up and only 60 down, a "Snow Bunny" is nothing more than an "urban colloquial for caucasian women." Urban Dictionary offers this example of the term used in context: "Yo, that Snow Bunny has an ass like a sista." However, removing the space separating "Snow" and "Bunny" in the search reveals the following, slightly more descriptive definition, with 120 thumbs up and 28 down: "hot white girls who like black guys."
I'm not quite sure what to make of the discrepancy between definitions and have yet to contribute to the Urban Dictionary with a thumbs up or a thumbs down for either entry. Regardless, I suppose I represent just the first burgeoning wave of snow bunnies to stake out lives and homes in this neighborhood. We all need a place, or have one made for us. I do what I can.
A week after my sister's Azerbaijan comment this spring, my housemates and I planted seedlings for a summer vegetable garden. We stood outside without coats in the new warmth of the season, pushing squash and tomato and swiss chard seeds into yogurt containers of potting soil. The alley cats came and went. A squirrel perched on an electrical cable and doves necked in our one and only tree. The kids upstairs peeked at us through their windows and giggled.