1967, the Summer of Our Discontent


Last summer I had a conversation with a woman who lives around corner from me, in the middle on the next block going east. Though technically not a neighbor, she's far from a stranger; before the conversation I had been seeing her years before that on my morning walks, and we always exchanged greetings or updates, usually about stray or stranded dogs on her street and what had happened to them.

One morning she told me that the house across the street from her got foreclosed on and the owners had disappeared in the middle of the night and left the animals behind. The cat and dog had been circling forlornly around the house, at a loss. The woman and some neighbors had been feeding the pair to encourage the belief that the neighborhood was still theirs even if the house wasn't, even if they had been abandoned by the people who had made the neighborhood home for the animals in the first place.

The woman had been watching all this and thinking about rescuing them, which I encouraged. I do it a lot myself. And she had the best house on the block, modest in size but very imaginatively landscaped with mini palm trees, bansai, tropical flowers in various stages of bloom, white rocks scattered in waves around an emerald lawn. Her house was one of the reasons I walked the block so regularly.

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On that summer day I stopped and wound up talking not about dogs, but about the woman's son, who had moved back in after losing an engineering job. He was trying to figure out his next move. Times were tough, we agreed. In some ways they always have been for us. But there were times when the toughness was considerably less dense and things looked absolutely hopeful. My neighbor started telling me about she had moved to this block in 1967 with her husband; she was pregnant with her first child at the time. Inglewood had just begun to integrate, meaning that whites could no longer feasibly keep blacks out. It didn't mean everybody would live together happily ever after -- nobody on either side of the color line was that naïve -- but my neighbor assumed the change portended something good. It had to.

She and her husband moved into their house in July. More than half the households at that point were white or Asian, she said. Professionals, long-timers, describers, and defenders of the neighborhood. Many of the people worked in aerospace. The new young black family didn't get firebombed or run out, but neither was it warmly received. She told me how her next-door neighbor, a white man, would come out every day and stand on his lawn and look over at her if she was outside. He just stood and glared wordlessly, sometimes blurting out with a mix of anger and genuine bewilderment, "What are you doing here?" She chose not to dignify that with a reply. This was her moment of change, of triumph, and this man who happened to be her new neighbor wasn't going to ruin it.

By the end of the summer, more than half of the white households had sold or were gone. About a decade later, the transformation of Inglewood from white to black was pretty much complete. If there was any triumph or satisfaction in this, or if there was any distress, the woman didn't show it. She related the whole story matter-of-factly, as if the failed promise of integration and the illusion of equality have long since been pedestrian realities, not causes for regret or outrage.

I understood the attitude; I see it a lot in other black people of that generation who went through something similar. But I couldn't help but wonder how she felt that summer, whether she'd felt abandoned or betrayed or something she couldn't describe and maybe still can't. She had moved into a new, previously off-limits neighborhood, and then the neighborhood left and she and the other black residents had to decide what it was now. Better? Worse? It was the same, but not. It was home, but not in the way the new arrivals had expected it would be. It was home on the outside -- the houses and landscaping on the block were still lovely -- but the insides had shifted. The sense and scope of possibility that had been the biggest draws had to be reconfigured.

I like what we have now, what was worked out or accepted in those years. I have known nothing else. My block and my neighbor's is no paradise but you can see and feel vestiges of it: it is still a respite, a place to land and to be taken in, taken care of. A place to aspire to and to stay. That is more than enough.

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