This past weekend, I ran into my neighbors moving out. They're a small family of three--mom, dad, daughter--not newlyweds, but still on the young side. They moved in roughly the same time I did, 2004, at a time when the still-feverish housing market had fairly recently turned blue-collar cities like Inglewood into communities with half-million dollar homes. That's no longer the case. It probably won't ever be again.
The sight of my neighbor's pickup truck backing out of the driveway, its bed loaded with a dozen or so oversized trash bags full of stuff and tied neatly at the top, took some of my breath away with a sharp, sudden feeling of diminishment. The neighborhood was losing a family, but something much bigger than that.
I wasn't surprised, but I had been in denial about the inevitability of the move. The "For Sale" sign had been on the lawn since summer. It had appeared rather suddenly, too, or it seemed sudden to me; Michael, the father, and I chatted regularly over the years and he had never hinted that he was going to sell or that he needed to move. When I asked him about the sign, he only nodded and said philosophically that "it was time to leave." He was pointedly vague about the reasons why it was time, and I didn't probe. Our conversations up to that point had all been casual and upbeat--how are the dogs, how's work--and the matter of the house was likely too personal for him to delineate.
But I still felt shut out.
We had formed a kind of intimacy as neighbors and fellow residents living in a place that needed us and our clear stake in keeping things stable and prosperous, and not just in terms of money. The bond was superficial in one way, but deep in another: It was a covenant, an understanding amongst black folks that we were responsible for keeping things good in the one of the last 'hoods left in L.A. County that could claim to be predominantly black and nominally middle-class. Unlike enclaves like Ladera Heights or West Adams or even Crenshaw, Inglewood is its own civic entity that determines its own fate, year in and year out. We don't have a larger context or a buffer of a bigger city like Los Angeles; if we fail, we fully absorb that failure. If we lose a good citizen, he or she is not quickly replaced, especially in these sluggish economic times. We were never a new boomtown or point of gentrification, and now that folks are leaving Inglewood has only the struggle of isolation that the housing frenzy had temporarily masked.
Michael paused in the driveway, put the truck in neutral. "Yes, I'm leaving today," he said cheerfully in response to my question. "Sold the house. We've got forty-eight hours."
I caught my breath again--what did that deadline mean, or portend? Was he and his family being thrown out, had he lost work and not said, lost a hold of things? But the house had been sold, not foreclosed on, as far as I could tell. I longed to know more, know him more, but it was too late; I only nodded back and smiled. This was also part of our ancient covenant as black folks, keeping our chins up, defying the existence of trouble, rolling with the punches and finding better luck elsewhere. But where could Michael go that was luckier than this, more welcoming? Would he and his family survive, let alone prosper?
"Okay," I said. "Take care. I'll miss seeing you."
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.