The Tipping Point: When the Poor Move Into the Neighborhood

The Section 8 family on my block has moved away. I'm sure of it. I didn't see them go, but the faded blue house at the corner has that thorough, unlived-in stillness that's different from the temporary stillness of a house that you leave for a few hours, or a day or even a month. One is a lull; the other is a shutting down.

The house next to me shut down like that last month when its elderly owner, Lily, was moved out. She left suddenly, too. She was 97 and the oldest person on the block by far; she had lived here since 1953, when this entire tract was built. After she left the house kind of closed its eyes. It feels strange. It's no longer Lily's home but a structure her family is in the middle of fixing up -- crews of people come and plow and pave over and dig. It is now a project.

The faded blue house is no longer a home, either. It's a building, a warehouse; I can almost see through it even though the windows and doors are closed and locked. Nobody is fixing it up.

I was surprised to find this house empty and, I'm somewhat ashamed to say, a little relieved. The Section 8 family of a mother, father, two kids, and a small dog (nobody ever knew their last name) created more than a little consternation around here when it moved in about two years ago. The longtime residents on the block who consider themselves middle-class and stable were wary of harboring poor people, but poor black people stirred a whole other level of wariness.

Beneath the near contempt I heard in my neighbors' voices when they talked about the new arrivals was a kind of panic -- what will these poor black folk do to the block? What will they do to our fortunes, to our sense of ourselves, to our sense of stability that's always been fragile? The fear that I sensed was that this family would be a tipping point, and we would all slide from middle-class calm into that daily striving for normalcy that we associate with less fortunate places like Compton and Watts.

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This one poor family would open floodgates of history and we would all be sucked back into the poverty and drudgery we'd worked so hard to leave. A big part of the near-contempt my neighbors had for the Section 8 family was resentment: how dare they come and bring their struggle with them? Nobody wanted it. We wanted as little a struggle as possible, we needed that lack of struggle it in order to feel successful at all. Now this family, with its very presence, threatened to deny success to all of us. It was an insult.

None of this came to pass, of course. The family lived in the blue house and kept pretty much to itself. It adapted to the tenor of the neighborhood, not the other way around. My biggest objection was the fact that the family didn't see fit to secure their little dog, who wandered the street almost daily between the blue house and mine, barking bewilderingly at people and almost getting hit by a car on more than one occasion. But that was it. The kids skateboarded or played games at the corner where they lived, but otherwise the family didn't really interact with anyone.

I think they knew what we thought about them even though I always smiled and waved at whoever was outside when I drove past or walked by with my own dogs. But during the last block picnic in August, I caught sight of the youngest boy who had skateboarded down the street as usual, but then, instead of going home, he saw what was going on in the middle of the block and stayed. Some time later he was sitting on the curb in the shade with a half dozen other neighborhood kids, swapping jokes, laughing and clowning around. He was in most ways entirely indistinguishable from the group; I don't think my neighbors recognized him at all. He got a plate of barbeque and dessert like everybody else. That was a good thing, the very spirit of integration that has eluded Inglewood for all of its history. I hope he, and his family, remember us well.

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