Moving On


My neighbors are selling their house.

I can't quite believe it. I got the news by accident, driving home one evening last week and spotting the sign on their lawn before making the usual left turn onto my block. I thought I had the wrong house, so I circled back to check: it was theirs. I was floored. I had run into Howard and his wife that morning on my dog walk. They were out walking too, pushing a baby stroller with their infant son. We chatted at length about many things -- dogs, teaching school, getting together -- but not about moving. The sale sign was all the more puzzling because one of the things we had talked about was real estate and housing prices. We talked about how on our regular walks we were starting to see small signs of progress in Inglewood -- renovated houses with imaginatively landscaped greenery, a trend that suggested the people moving in were really making an investment. It looked like they planned to stay.

It's been encouraging, we said. The property values in our neighborhood were among the first in L.A. county to bottom out when the mortgage crisis hit and the recession settled in; we had bought at precisely the wrong time, in the mid-2000s, when the housing bubble was still expanding. It was about to burst, but we didn't know that. I don't know when or if we'll ever get back to those pre-recession prices -- quite frankly, we shouldn't -- but it didn't matter to Howard and his wife or to me and my husband because we had all decided to stay well before the property-value plunge made it almost impossible to leave. And for me, the bad fortune was mitigated by the fact that a young couple like them was putting down roots here. Too many homeowners in these parts are older people whose kids and grandkids can't seem to afford to buy anything, anywhere. We need replenishment, and Howard and his wife are exactly that. I was reassured.

And now they are looking to go. When I emailed Howard asking about the sign -- hoping he was just testing the waters to see where the prices are now -- he came to my house to talk to me about it. He had his son with him. He looked sheepish, but more than that, he looked troubled. He said that he didn't want to leave, and neither did his wife. Far from it. But something had happened in the last six months that made him reconsider raising his son here. His neighbors, young women with children, were having some kind of spat with their boyfriends; one boyfriend ran outside and was fired at. Howard called the cops, but before they arrived, the women had picked the shell casings out of the front lawn. There was no evidence anything had happened.

But even before the incident, there had been tension with these neighbors, Howard said. A random shot fired. A verbal assault over a parking space. He and his wife started feeling uneasy, but more crucially, they felt there was nothing they could do. So they're looking to move someplace where they can feel okay about their son playing on the front lawn. Someplace where the threat of violence isn't likely to be next door.

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I've been through this before. Years ago another young family I became friendly with moved too, not because of any incidents, but because of the possibility of incidents. I can't deny that the possibility exists everywhere in Inglewood, even in its loveliest parts, which is what we live in. The distressing reality is that Inglewood lives on the edge of the good life, not in the middle. A shooting or some other negative event happens, the bare balance tips, and people who have the means or who have certain expectations will flee.

Howard truly doesn't want to do that. He likes us, he likes his other neighbors. He and his wife know that we have something of a covenant, as all neighbors do -- a tacit agreement that we are living in a place worthy of our aspirations, and that's why we're here. Seeing that sign on Howard's lawn signals failure and makes our place feel a little less worthy. I feel this even though I know his situation is unusual, that most people around here are more than neighborly. That's the norm. But the tragedy is that in a majority black, working-class neighborhood it is the aberration, not the norm, that controls our imagination. Howard and his family are not leaving so much as they are being driven out by the specter of urban chaos that has plagued Inglewood and places like it for a long time.

I hope they stay. What galls me most is that, like Howard, it seems like there is nothing I can do.

Top image: By Flickr user The-Tim, via a Creative Commons license.


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