Every time I drive by this past week or so, they’re gutting these two houses further, a truck pulling an open trailer full of pieces parked in the street. The doors and windows are gone, their frames lifted off the foundation and onto cinder blocks. They’ll move them maybe, somewhere outside our neighborhood.
These are, of course, only the latest houses to go. A few months ago, we woke up to find they had demolished the whole block on the other side of the street from these, except for one house at the very end. The woman with the flock of roosters in her yard is gone, a neighbor my kid said hello to nearly every day on his walk from the bus stop back to our place. We drove by the string of trashed and empty lots the other day, and my housemate noted that he knew someone who lived in a house near the end, before looking and saying, “Oh, I guess they tore his house down too,” as we drove by.
This is the end of our street, across the intersection.
And even that block of demolition is a late development. In the time I’ve lived here, I remember two houses on the main street a block over, and the huge Victorian looking house with the big porch on the other end of our street in the lot waist-high with weeds, and the three row houses across from the chess tree where once there had been children and bicycles and folks on their porches, and now it’s empty. A few weeks ago, I drove to town in the early morning past the old hospital that many in our neighborhood were born in. Then around noon, I drove back by to find a backhoe on a pile of rubble. Now it’s also a huge empty lot.
Some days it feels like the neighborhood is coming down around us. At this point there are so many empty lots on our street and the streets behind us that the place has begun to feel a little rural, a little wild. The flocks of feral chickens and horses my neighbor keeps help that feeling. But we’re roughly five minutes from downtown, living in the shadow of the skyline.
I worry a lot about how to live here faithfully – like, are we just part of the gentrification, an encouragement to others to come here, or are we doing something different?
I know there are arguments happening in civic organizations around the city about whether perhaps our neighborhood (and others like it) are already gentrified. The statistics indicate that between 70-80% of the homes here are owned by white real estate investors whose primary residences are outside of this neighborhood, and rented to Black folks who grew up here. The argument goes that if this is true, then the empty lots are prime for building; need not worry about the ethics of it all.
Earlier this week, my elderly neighbor who usually sits on her porch was robbed. I came home from dropping the boy off at school to find police parked on my street, and my other neighbors on her porch and in her yard, everyone visibly upset. As I got out of my car and headed toward the house, my next door neighbor, the only older man on our block besides our elderly groundskeeper, met me in the driveway, very upset. He explained it was forced entry, through the back of the house and out of his line of view. He couldn’t and didn’t see what happened, because of the angle.
I could tell he felt a little responsible. Him and her, they are the eyes on our street, the ones always watching the coming and going, knowing what’s safe here and what isn’t. “I can see your house just fine, and I watch for you. But the back of her house, it was just a bad angle.” He shook his head, blinking. “It’s these young men, don’t care about nothing or no one.” And then, “I called her son. I have his number. He’s coming by.”
Sometimes when we drive by toward town, they’re all on her porch – her, him, the woman across the street (the one who feeds the pigeons and doves cracked corn every morning in the street, shaking her gate to tell them breakfast is served as they swoop from the powerline to eat), and the groundskeeper, keeping up on one another, this tiny community of home for one another. And sometimes they let us in, which feels like so much grace. We wave as we go by, sometimes yell out the window.
If we turn right at the end of our street, we pass the chess tree, and with the weather nice this week, all the old office chairs are filled with men, many older but some young ones too, multiple games going at once, and others just there to sit a spell. Sometimes there’s a kid or two on a bicycle, and chickens scratching in the dirt, chihuahuas in the street.
And if we turn left, we pass an old building with “you are enough” in bold spray paint on plywood over a boarded window. There people sit. A few days ago as I drove past, children raced one another barefoot down the sidewalk, pushing past each other, laughing.
These are the things the real estate developers don’t see – can’t see, their eyes blinded by the money signs. In one of the last pockets of semi-affordable housing the city has, they gobble up land, ready to come in and build their high rise townhomes, pressing families and community members out to find somewhere else to try to live. Maybe the question of whether white ownership means gentrification matters, I don’t know, but it seems more important that where people live together in proximity to one another, communities develop. Money doesn’t care.
Sure, gentrification isn’t the only problem. This is the inner city; you know the stories, the tales, and a lot of them are true. But stark poverty would drive just about anyone to desperation and it’s often the despair and the anger that fuels the worst of things here. People with hope don’t commit crimes. We desperately need affordable housing. We desperately need equality in education. We desperately need an end to all of the ways systems are broken and oppressive in service to the white and the rich.
This morning, I sit as I do most mornings, with only the screen door closed, listening to the sounds of the city – roosters, and metro train horns, sirens and voices, cars rushing and an electric saw somewhere near, doves and blackbirds and a red-bellied woodpecker, dogs barking and Mr. Cliff raking rocks in the drive. From time to time, I hear the standard greeting echoed back and forth: “Alright,” and then “alright.”
Sometimes here, I feel our smallness, and the largeness of the powers and principalities. I try to weigh out what would be responsible action and what would be a white savior complex kicking in. I question whether bearing witness is work enough, or whether loving my neighbor means putting my body in the way of things, and how.
Can you see me, on my couch with my knees pulled up, dogs on the porch behind me, other side of the screen door? And can you feel the breeze right now, slightly cool? And do you know how blue the sky is even here? The jasmine has tiny buds, and the hibiscus is showy, and the sunflowers are like eternal dawn breaking in every ditch. Our back fence is missing a slat, and sometimes the boy in the yard behind us asks us if we’ll play frisbee over the fence.
For today, this is what I can offer – a glimpse of what I see, what I live, where my body is now, what my affections are. I don’t know if it will matter, or how, but I think it must, liked a voice crying in the wilderness a different story than the one we know.