A reverse migration from post-crack New York, revealing that the sky in Warner Robins looks impossibly blue
WARNER ROBINS, Ga.—"This was just before Obama got elected. I was taking my youngest one to daycare one morning. We lived in Cartersville, Barstow County. It's predominantly white. This guy would every day hold the door for me. He was white. We'd have a conversation: 'How you doing,' 'Good morning,' the weather or something. And the day that Obama got elected, that next morning, we ran into each other again. He was coming in as I was coming in. He was in front of me. That man opened the door, made sure his son got in the door, and closed it. Right in my face.
"My baby looked at me and said, 'Mommy, what's wrong? He mad?' I didn't want to explain it to my kid, you know so I said, 'Maybe he has a lot on his mind.'
"So as I got to the classroom—the teacher is actually black. She had let all the parents know that she was going to bring a TV in because 'the president's gonna speak today.' She said to me: 'You won't believe that this parent came in—and I won't tell you who—and said he wanted his child to be excused."
Sabrina Ingram was born and raised in Rockaway, Queens. Eight years ago, she moved to Cartersville, in Northern Georgia, to get her kids far away from the crime and the drugs. Coming from a densely populated, diverse community, she was a bit thrown by the racism in Cartersville. She says the door-slamming episode was her first real taste of it.
Last year, Sabrina moved from Cartersville to Warner Robins, a much more ethnically and economically diverse town in Middle Georgia, mainly because of its sprawling Air Force base, which naturally draws personnel from all over the country. Just slightly southwest of the dead center of Georgia, its official nickname is the International City. "In the schools that my kids went to in Cartersville, they were the only black ones in the class," she told me. "Here in this [Warner Robins] school system there might be at least four or five. It's more of a mixture."
She says she still experiences the occasional flare-up of racism—mostly from surly Wal-mart employees—but that the Warner Robins experience is generally a lot closer to the bustling harmony she grew up with near the beaches of Rockaway.
"Growing up in New York I could always tell people, and I tell them today, we didn't have the issue of racism because our mindset was—until the Howard Beach incident, it wasn't like you were raised to feel uncomfortable that you were this certain color. My kids, I never raised them to know, 'You're black, they're white.' They played with all walks of life."
Like so many young black parents, she moved south not just to provide her children with a more secure environment but also to escape the punishing New York rents. In Warner Robins, entire homes in quiet areas rent for less than a single room in Bed Stuy. Townhouses on well-kept complexes, complete with pool and 24-hour gym access, go for as little as $450 a month and rarely higher than $850. In Macon, the college town next door (and geographically the true dead center of Georgia), gorgeous historic homes rent for as low as $400 a month and often no more than $650. (The local rumor is that, as lovely as the homes are, the ghosts in them insure frequent turnaround. Cool.)
This new wave of African-Americans heading south has been called the Second Great Migration or the Reverse Migration, in contrast to last century's black exodus from a segregated, hostile South to opportunities in the North.
Sabrina's grandfather went to Queens late in the first migration, abandoning his farm in Pensacola, Fla.
"My grandfather originally moved his family up there because crops were low," she said. "He got there and started working at a mill. And from the mill he moved on to being a bus driver. He found a place, went back, and got my grandmother and my mom and the other siblings—it was twelve of them."
Her father's parents made a similar journey from Americus in South Georgia around the same time. There on the streets of Queens her father and mother met, fell in love, started their own family, and never left.
And, says Sabrina, despite pushing 60, her parents aren't ready to leave the city that she says has gotten "worse and worse" every year leading up to her departure in 2002.
"They say you come down south to retire," she said. "They're not ready to retire. They like the big city, always active, constantly. It's pretty much keeping them going, keeping them vibrant."
My father said much the same to me shortly after I arrived in Warner Robins late last year: "Down yonder is not for me, Sport."
Like Sabrina's parents, he and my mother came up from the South separately in the 1950s—he from Elon, N.C., she from Pittsview, Ala., two dusty little farm towns—and met in New York. He was just up for the summer to make a little cash working at a resort in Westchester, but when he spotted my mother, it occurred to him to hang back a little longer. He ended up hanging back for five decades. They raised me and my four siblings in Mount Vernon, N.Y., twelve blocks away from the Bronx.
Like my siblings and me, Sabrina and her three younger brothers came of age across urban America's invisible dividing line, the surge of the crack epidemic in 1984. The crack explosion added novel excitement to playing in the streets. A playground across from our house became a drive-thru drug supermarket, and watching police raids and foot chases from the porch easily stole us away from the TV set. It was hard to recognize at the time that we were watching a slow-motion apocalypse.
Cities like Mt. Vernon and neighborhoods like Rockaway are now in a post-apocalyptic phase, several generations removed from the initial blast. The children of the crack epidemic, the ones somehow left alive and out of prison, are becoming grandparents. Gangs are as much of a fixture as the traffic lights. And the rent is too damn high.
In that light, a little passive-aggressive racism from a P.T.A. dad or a Wal-mart cashier is a small price to pay for a life away from all that chaos. My father says when he decided to settle in New York, he vowed never to return to North Carolina as anything other than a visitor. Growing up in Elon in the 1940s and '50s, he experienced more than just slammed doors and dirty looks.
"No, son, I'll stay up yonder," he told me last fall, his smile audible through the phone. "I'll come see you, but that's about it."
I feel the same way about New York—or at least the parts of New York I could (just barely) afford to live in.
Sabrina is staying put as well, despite the fact that her parents and all her siblings remain in Queens. "I'm the only one who took the leap, so far," she said.
What does she miss about her former hometown of 30 years?
"So many things," she said, with a laugh. "The food, number one. But this [move] was about my children, not me. I have a teenager now, so I was worried about him back then. One of his friends came to school with a gun, and the little boy was only in the fourth grade. That was the icing on the cake, because this was actually somebody he was friends with."
Georgia in particular hasn't got much of a history with New York, beyond the migrants who have passed between them over the years, but there are at least two dramatic points of connection. They were the only two colonies who didn't approve the proceedings of the First Continental Congress in 1774. Georgia wasn't allowed to vote anyway, as it was mislabeled a "convict state" at the time.
Sometime later, New York activists crossed paths with Georgians again over the matter of an actual convict condemned to die on the basis of controversial evidence.
Not to audition for the Georgia tourist board. But my reason for sticking around in Middle Georgia after a lifetime in the greatest city in the world is simple: the elevation. Warner Robins is about two hundred feet higher above sea level than Manhattan, and there are no skyscrapers. The sky drapes about our heads like some kind of gorgeously back-lit, royal-blue sultan's tent. Magic hour in Houston County is something out of Terrence Malick's happiest daydream.
In New York, as a man of lesser means and restless spirit, I had to go to Governors Island on Free Bike Fridays to get the kind of thrilling escape that's available almost every day here at the cost of a one-time fee of forty bucks. That was the price of a used, mint-condition mountain bike on Craigslist. In a land of SUVs and pickups, I run my errands on the bike, enjoying a bizarre winter where the temperature has averaged 70 degrees. Red Georgia clay below, a band of blue above. After a couple of miles, pine trees, and lumpy clearings give way to the main strip, Watson Boulevard, where the shopkeepers and working folk range almost as wildly in hues and accents as my former neighbors in Brooklyn, the South Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side.
When I return from these journeys to my townhouse complex, I often wave at the property manager's office, where Sabrina sits at her desk with an expression that I suspect mirrors mine. If she happens to be walking the grounds, she'll sing out, "What's up, New York?"