'Welcome to the Neighborhood':
Roll out the unwelcome wagon
Howard Witt, Tribune senior correspondent who has lived in the Circle
C neighborhood since December 2003
LETTER FROM AUSTIN
August 2, 2005
For Circle C Ranch residents, ABC's stifled fair-housing nightmare of a reality show, `Welcome to the Neighborhood,' leaves a sense of lingering discomfort in its wake, the Tribune's Howard Witt writes
AUSTIN, Texas -- When the film crews suddenly showed up in our comfortable Austin neighborhood one morning last winter, roping off a tidy cul-de-sac and bathing the brick house on the corner in bright klieg lights, the producers were highly secretive about just what they were doing.
The word on the street was that one of those reality TV series was being shot over on Alberta Cove, this one featuring contestants vying to win a luxury house. Our local homeowners' association didn't know much more than that, but pronounced itself excited that our neighborhood was to be featured in such a feel-good show. Real estate agents predicted that the national exposure would be great for property values.
Well, our property values are probably safe. But only because this particular reality series is not likely ever to be seen by the rest of the country.
It turns out our neighborhood of several thousand homes in southwest Austin, known as Circle C Ranch, was ground zero for this summer's most controversial TV show, called "Welcome to the Neighborhood." The ABC Television network canceled it just days before the first episode was to have aired last month, after angry protests from civil rights groups.
The premise of the series, you may recall hearing, was a fair-housing nightmare: Three wealthy, white, conservative Christian families decide which of seven desperate families deserve to move into a $400,000 house and join their tight-knit cul-de-sac. The contestants include an African-American family, a Hispanic family, a Korean family, a pair of Wiccans, two gay white men with an adopted black child, a stripper and a couple of tattoo artists.
There are good reasons why, in the real world, you don't get to pick your neighbors--why anyone who can afford a house on your street has the right to buy it. "Welcome to the Neighborhood" was all about displaying those reasons, in living color.
Throughout the course of the show's six episodes, most of the judging families displayed all sorts of bigotries and biases as they winnowed the field and chose which family was most likely to "fit in," be "compatible" and behave "most like us." In other words, the judges got to practice precisely the kind of "polite," thinly disguised discrimination that modern fair-housing laws are designed to prohibit.
Prejudice laces preview
Most critics of the series saw only the first two episodes, during which the judging families make some of their most outrageous and prejudiced comments. ("I would not tolerate a homosexual," one of the judges declares. "We're just not comfortable with you," another judge tells the black family.)
But the producers countered that later episodes show the judges softening and ultimately learning the lesson that stereotyping is a bad thing. Indeed, the man who insisted he would not tolerate gays has an epiphany by the end, averring that "You forget about the gay issue and realize they are just people."
Another judge, speaking of the black family, discovers "what nice, pleasant and even well-versed people they are."
Not nice enough, however, to actually win the house. After rejecting the Koreans (too foreign), the witches (too scary), the stripper (too controversial), the tattoo aficionados (too weird-looking) and the Hispanics (too loud), the judging families are left with two finalists: the black family and the gay family.
To help make the decision, the judges decide to visit the existing homes of the two finalists. The house where the black family lives turns out to be kind of careworn and messy; the house where the gays live is immaculate and furnished like something out of Architectural Digest.
The gays win.
I know this because I got to see all six episodes of "Welcome to the Neighborhood" last month, at a special screening arranged for Circle C residents. And I can say that it's a shame that America may never see this particular made-for-TV social experiment, because it provided a rare window into what our neighborhood, and to a large degree, the city of Austin, is really like.
Smug self-image takes hits
Austin, the hip, high-tech home of the University of Texas and Dell Computer Corp. and the self-described "live music capital of the world," has long prided itself as a diverse, liberal, blue oasis in the overwhelmingly conservative red state of Texas.
But that smug self-image has taken a number of hits in recent years. The Austin American-Statesman published a series of articles last year documenting how the local police use force against blacks and Hispanics far more often than against whites.
Last February, some Austin police officers responding to a fire at a local nightclub popular with African-Americans exchanged offensive e-mail messages on their squad car computers, including one that read "Burn, baby, burn."
That incident sparked months of meetings between city officials and local black leaders, who complained of Austin's general unfriendliness toward blacks.
Just under 10 percent of Austin's 656,000 residents are black, while 31 percent are Hispanic and 53 percent are white, according to the 2000 census. But the demographics of the affluent Circle C neighborhood are more lopsided: here 80 percent of residents are white, while just 2 percent are black and 10 percent Hispanic.
African-Americans in particular get stares and double-takes when they walk along the neighborhood's lushly landscaped streets. My own family is multiracial, so we know this first-hand.
"Circle C personifies many suburbs in this country, in Texas and in Austin," said John Bellamy, one of the neighbors cast as "the good guy" on the show because he and his family urged the other judges not to be so intolerant and judgmental. "Look, it's 2005. I just don't think in terms of sexuality and race when I interact with somebody."
Not all the neighbors around Alberta Cove got the message, apparently. After the gay couple won the house, the owners of the home behind it promptly put their place up for sale, Bellamy said, announcing that they didn't want to live near homosexuals. Then, last month, a black family bought a home on the cul-de-sac, unaware of their new neighbors' participation in the reality TV show.
"I'm feeling a little uncomfortable for them, not really knowing what they were getting into," Bellamy said of the black family. "I hope they'll like it here."
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