Repairing the damage in our small cities

Our bath remodel in progress. Photo by author.

Our family lives in an old fixer-upper in a small rust belt town, a town that’s been languishing ever since the industrial plants and mills started closing in the 1960s. We live in a historically integrated neighborhood, where some families have lived for generations. Affluent suburban homes and schools encircle our small city, population 13,663, like a donut, leaving a hole — our impoverished municipality and small city school district — in the middle.

Built around 1881, the year James Garfield was inaugurated, this old house ain’t playing. Every home improvement presents challenges…

I’m not a good person. But our neighbors might be changing me.

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Our house sits on a residential street that the road map of our small town, population 13,663, which is about 28 miles from Pittsburgh, designates a major arterial. Traffic rushes by. Ambulances back into nearby garages. Life Flight helicopters whir overhead.

Our neighbors one house over, a young Black family, recently rented their home to a wonderful neighbor and moved away. I imagine they now live in an attractive suburban home, near the schools they want their children to attend. I’m happy for them.

And I think a lot about moving to the suburbs.

But all around our neighborhood, people…

People fear me

Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

This summer, dealing with Covid, my husband and I have been spending more time at home, but I’ve tried to take a long walk every day. Walking isn’t a big activity in our small town, 28 miles from Pittsburgh, and anyone walking around town regularly gets noticed. We live in a historically Black neighborhood with a big AME church and families who have lived here for generations.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down a neighborhood street and restarting my cell phone, when a young Black man tensely asked me, “what are you doing?” I looked up at…

Tanner Colby wrote a good book

Photo by Julian Scagliola on Unsplash

We met in afternoon daycare at four years old in 1975 at a primary school on James Street in Kent, Washington, and we entered morning kindergarten the next year. Cho Cho was my first school friend, and I still have pictures of Cho Cho, whose mom was Burmese (Myanmar) and whose dad was of African ancestry; I don’t know if his family were immigrants or descendants of slavery. To me, a white four-year-old, Cho Cho simply looked Black.

In one picture, we’re playing in the park, our moms watching us from a bench. In another, we’re sitting together at a…

While the Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy showed us how to do it right

By Greg Hernandez — Flickr: IMG_2883, CC BY 2.0,

Even if you’ve never seen daytime television in your life before, you’ve probably seen it by now. At least, you’ve probably seen clips from Sharon Osborne’s cringey meltdown on The Talk in a conversation about racism with Sheryl Underwood.

And what a literal sh*tshow of white friend blunders it was: talking over her Black friend, getting defensive, telling her not to cry, and saying her own feelings were more important.

In contrast, this week, Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy offered the world this fabulous example of how to…

It was uncomfortable

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Whenever I remember that phone conversation, I can feel my face heat up.

I write for a magazine that covers Christian and Jewish seminaries, which essentially operate just like any other graduate school. I also consult for an Anglican seminary, and in May 2020, our Board of Trustees announced that one of the trustees had endowed a Scholarship for African American Students.

Now, our Anglican seminary enrollment includes many students from Kenya and Uganda, mostly from the Kikuyu tribe, who converted to Christianity, due to economic necessity, at the end of the nineteenth century, when they were…

Where empathy begins

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I’m not an intimidating person. Few people in their senses would fear me. But when, as coronavirus quarantines began, I began taking daily walks through our rust belt town, situated about 28 miles from Pittsburgh, this past year, I gradually became painfully aware that my face, passed down to me by people arriving in America from northern, southern, and eastern Europe in the early 1900s, caused unease for people in our neighborhood. …

Mahalia Jackson’s music is making me a better listener

Photo by Jamelle Bouie on Wikimedia Commons

My dad first introduced me to Mahalia Jackson years ago, and when I listened, she captivated and consoled all at once. Her long trills fitted neatly into the grooves in the air, as if she had her own key to them. And in the caverns created by her deep, lilting voice, I heard the faith and resilience of a Black American woman who had lived through the trauma of the Jim Crow south to tell about how “the grace of God” had gotten her “thus far.”

So last week, when my friend, whom I’ll call William, a Black man in…

Shannon Mary Sims

Writer, musician, lover, grandma, friend.

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