Five years ago, we bought a house. The shell of a house we bought then bears little resemblance to the cozy home we inhabit today. Plywood nailed haphazardly over broken windows trapped darkness and potent odors inside. Everytime we visited, Adam brought a drill to unscrew his way into our one-day-home. A recent raid by the police had emptied it of occupants, but left behind the detritus of their lives. And so we step over sleeping bags and used condoms, my belly just beginning to round with Caden, and Jayci trapped firmly in my arms despite her protests. We bring Zack and Sabo to visit, excited about living so close to them. Their reaction proves far less enthusiastic than our own: Why would you guys move out of your nice neighborhood to live here? They ask with wide eyes, and we respond with laughs and the truth: we wanted to live closer to you guys. They shrug and roll their eyes a little, declaring us crazy in the particular manner of adolescent boys.
Most of the houses around ours sit abandoned, a street neatly hollowed by years of neglect. Adam and his dad spend long days and nights gutting and leveling and making straight what leans crooked. Nine months later, we move in for good, our world upended completely by Caden’s birth and diagnosis, nipping at the heels of the closing on our new home on an empty street.
We quickly jump headlong into a life of hospital trips and feeding tubes, alongside drug deals and stolen lawn-mowers. At 2:45am, we kneel to peek out windows from behind bamboo blinds, watching two men run past with guns and voices raised. And we build relationships, slowly but surely. Talking to our neighbors, working in the garden, eliciting help to fence in our back-yard. Not to keep anyone out so much as to ineffectively keep our annoying dog in. Days slip into months and eventually years, and suddenly I realize that we have landed upon something real. I’m surprised to discover we’ve built the kind of relationships where the guy across the street comes by when Adam goes out of town to make sure I dont need anything from the store, and to tell me his mom is happy to watch the kids. We exchange pleasantries and he blows the smoke from his joint in the opposite direction. I am brought to tears by the ones who stop by with diapers in big walmart bags as my belly swells big again with our third. Another neighbor brings over a check and tells me to buy the baby something cute, even though their own family dances right along the shaky edges of eviction.
But the neighborhood has changed, almost imperceptibly at first. We hear fewer gunshots, and mostly attribute the popping we do hear to fireworks from the nearby Braves stadium. Long-abandoned houses begin to be rehabbed, occupied first by renters and then, surprisingly, homebuyers who look a lot like we do. Friends move in, and we are equal-parts excited to share life, and worried as one-by-one the kiddos move out, victims of a complicated mixture of transience, rising rent costs, and landlords choosing to sell. At least once a month or so, I listen to my voicemails and delete the now-familiar spiel from investors who hope we might be looking to sell.
And it’s all a tangled and confusing mixture of possibly-racist facebook posts on the neighborhood watch page, and well-meaning neighbors calling the police unncessarily. Of prostitutes in the house behind us, while young couples push jogging strollers to the park. Of festivals in the park, and boys who get robbed at gunpoint even when all they have is fifty cent juice from the corner store. It seems the only kids who still live nearby and knock on our door live with grandma, whose families have been in the neighborhood since long before its rise and fall and rise again.
Glowing articles, crowd-funded renovations, and town meetings feel like clambering up a ladder to somehow find or create the American Dream, right in the very place we thought we had left it behind. I find myself torn, yanked by both arms by warring factions of myself. The investor who bought the house next to the corner store tells us his plan to get it torn down, in violation of every health code. Maybe, he laughs, they could turn it into a coffee shop. I’m ashamed to admit how nice this sounds. To pop up the street and savor the smell of fresh-roasted coffee (fair-trade of course) instead of grease and cigarettes. I envision myself writing and eating pastries, reading a good book or chatting with a friend. But I’ve seen our neighbor carrying her baby in her arms with another on her back, walking to the corner store at 8pm for dinner after work. I doubt they would pay for four dollar coffee instead of one dollar chicken.
I find myself caught somewhere in the middle. Hyper-aware of all the ways I’m complicit in this process of gentrification, a snowball rolling down the hill with little signs of stopping. If only we could just level the ground right now, freeze the neighborhood in its awkward adolescent phase of diversity and growing pains. Where neighbors might reap the benefits of more stability, of lessened crime, and of fewer abandoned spaces where unseemly behavior festers in the shadows. The problem, however, is that I cant see the tide stopping here. Inertia and human nature promises the continued movement upwards. Because we all want more, better, best. And the truth is, of course, we wanted (and want) better too. For ourselves, for our children, for our neighbors. We just wanted it without displacement, without eviction, without simply sweeping problems from our corner onto another one.
The problem, I suppose, lies in how we define success. In the ways we frame and then build a thriving neighborhood. Whose voices are at the table when these choices are being made? Because of course I dont want more gunshots. I dont want the gangs to come back, and I can only hope that our ever-failing school might finally clamber up the ladder at least a couple of rungs from the bottom. I’m not against change, not decrying “progress.” So what do I want? What does it look like to eschew the values of American Dreams in favor of the Kingdom? To call a neighborhood valuable because all of the different people who live there are valuable, not simply because the property values creep ever-higher.
This is day six in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).