Monday, October 7, 2013

Singlehandedly Destroying My Neighborhood, Or Something Like That

Warning: I’ve replaced data with footsteps and theories with my eyes. 

Columbia Heights is one of those neighborhoods -- you know, the kind that were once mostly black and Hispanic, mostly low-income, mostly part of city council meetings when people said words like "lack of access" and "development" and "up and coming". 
The streets were packed with markets and bodegas where English was a second language, and little girls avoided certain spots after school. When this neighborhood made headlines, it wasn't a good thing.

And then stuff happened. Like a huge shopping mall with a Target, and bars with craft beers and high end barbecue. We moved in: the young professionals who talk about community and don't use plastic bags and put sculptures in our tiny yards. So the building facades changed and rents got higher and people built free clinics and started to volunteer for the people who we weren't.

Naturally, these things are on my mind as my waking body memorizes the bus schedule, and I figure out how to get more air in my new little room. Because I'm so happy here, it's almost unnerving.

I smile when I walk down the street and see multiple generations of boys and men playing soccer, cursing and falling and laughing in Spanish. I stop by the hidden bakery on 11th Street and breathe in so deeply my stomach is almost full. I want to kiss the buzzed head of the kid I tutor on Tuesdays when I see him waiting outside the market with his mother. And I love the little girls with their shiny black hair and uniforms, and the family that sits out on their stoop and barbecues for hours and hours on a Sunday.

But there's this feeling of guilt sometimes. As if my being here means quite literally taking the space of someone who was there before me and can't be anymore -- a family forced out to Maryland because their home became too expensive. A mother who commutes more than an hour each morning instead of walking to work. This kind of exodus, I hear, can create islands of poverty and crime, driving a working class to isolation from the resources they need.

And then the questions:

What do I do? Is this just the kind of capitalism that doesn't come so naturally to me -- an inevitable shift? Do I stick to  my designated spot near U Street and Dupont? Or do I try my hardest to be a loving, giving, sharing person so that I earn the right to stay?  And is this also just a construction of my mind and its imposing limits?

My friend and I talk to Monty one day -- an ancient black man sitting shirtless on the steps of his row house with some sort of liquor in a brown paper bag. He's been here for decades and the neighborhood has changed in front of him, I imagine, from the same spot where he is currently perched.

I ask him questions that secretly reveal what is nagging me, and wait for an answer that I never get.

Monty doesn't care about gentrification, really, and he's not the least bitter about the white kids moving in. He points at the liquor store across the street and says things have gotten safer around here. He likes what's going on -- there are new things replacing old things, and the kids are getting home in one piece. Things look different, and Monty is on board. 

I see him again on a few occasions, the shiny skin on his chest juxtaposed with the aging gruff of his face. He and his wife sit outside all the time, taking sips of the humid summer air. And every time I see them, it's a reminder. A reminder that I don't get to tell someone else's story for them -- let alone the narrative of a neighborhood that existed long before me and will continue long after.

For now the battle I have is not the one of how this city should grow, but how I can grow alongside my neighbors. At the very least, I'll have to start by finding out who they are.

1 comment:

Dale Johnson said...

Well said