the view from my front door

Sunday morning, after a luxurious (for us) wake up from the kids at 6:45 a.m., with no plans to attend church because of road closures, Duncan down for his morning nap and Evangeline ensconced in her puzzles, I filled up a bucket with window cleaner and hot water and headed for the front of the house, determined to finally wash our windows. It was a bit cooler than I had anticipated but I didn’t mind. I was finding so much satisfaction in dipping the squeegy window thing (it’s real name) in the steaming hot, bubbly water, splashing the water all over our large front window and then meticulously squeegying the excess water off the window that very little could have dampened my mood. Our street is a relatively busy one and a lot of people were out and about already, walking dogs, chasing toddlers or going for a morning jog.

“Early start,” I heard a male voice call. When I turned around I saw a middle-aged man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby strapped securely in his Ergo carrier, trying to contain an excited beagle on a leash.

“Oh, no – we’ve been up, had first breakfast and are now just down for morning nap,” I replied, jutting my chin in his child’s direction. “We have a baby too.”

“Oh, yeah – we are heading for morning nap too, right after we finish our walk,” he said. “I’m Adam, by the way.”

“I’m Courtney, it’s nice to meet you.”

The rest of the conversation finished in the average way you would expect it to, so it would be difficult to immediately discern what was remarkable about it unless you lived on our street with us for the last five years. What I found astounding was that the conversation happened at all.

Five and a half years ago when we chose our house, we did so with the understanding that it wasn’t in a great school district, and that it did, in fact, exist mere blocks from one of the worst neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to have children, and even if we were able to, they existed merely as figments of our imagination, so we weren’t concerned with school districts.

It’s one thing not to be terribly concerned about school districts, and entirely another to realize what it means to live on the border of a “bad” neighborhood. Within weeks a drug deal went bad in our back alley, resulting in one of the kids breaking into our neighbors’ house while they were home to hide out from his dealer. A few weeks later, a woman was raped in a nearby park. For the first two and a half years we lived in our house, it wasn’t unusual to witness a rotating group of prostitutes circle in and out of one of the nearby apartment buildings, or to watch for used condoms and syringes when walking our dog. Occasionally we despaired about our choice of location
but, typical first-born children that we are, we mostly owned our decision and went about the business of restoring the house we bought and appreciating the fact it was within walking distance of work and our favorite restaurants. We did adopt a pretty big dog.

After I became pregnant with Evangeline we talked much more deeply about what we should do.

“We may have to lose money on the house,” Sam would say. “But we can recover from that if need be.”

“Kids need more green space,” I would say. “And fewer drug deals going on behind their house.”

“Preferably NO drug deals.”

“Well, yes, preferably. But even the suburbs have meth and heroine and teenagers.”

But while I was busy making and nursing babies, an amazing thing began to happen. It happened so slowly as to practically be imperceptible, until one day Sam and I were drinking coffee on our porch and noticed a brand new BMW parked in between the identical Mazdas my neighbor and I own.

“Well, that person obviously doesn’t live here,” I said.

“No, he does – down the street in one of the condos,” Sam said. “And someone nearby owns a Range Rover, too.”

I know gentrification has its downside but that’s not exactly what we are experiencing yet – I think, we are experiencing pre-gentrification, maybe? We’ve always had a solid set of neighbors, the majority of them child-free by choice, for whom school districts have never been important part of choosing a neighborhood. Now, between the frequent sightings of various couples in their late thirties, generally dressed either for the gym or a night on the town or the more transient, dislocated people who circulate in and out of the apartment buildings four blocks away from us, we are meeting young families. So many young families, in fact, that my neighbor Carmen has declared a baby boom in our neighborhood. And students! College and graduate school students, moving in with their Ikea furniture and beat up cars, asking with heartbreaking sincerity at the bus stop “if the bus is usually on time?” as we wait for one to arrive.

For several years I always found Sunday afternoons the creepiest time in my neighborhood. I usually found myself all alone in the park when I took my dog for a walk, save for one or two men sitting on the benches, a restlessness about them that screamed drug addiction. Even though Skylar is fiercely protective of me and sort of scary due to his size, I rushed through our Sunday afternoon constitutionals, never feeling completely comfortable or safe.

Now, though. Now. Sunday afternoons! A nearby yoga studio conducts classes in the middle of the park while parents bring their kids in wagons, on bikes and in strollers, laden down with t-ball equipment, beach balls and toys. The park is poetry in motion, all kids on bikes and babies on strollers and parents, coffee in hand, chasing chasing chasing. It is now one of my favorite places to spend time on the weekend.

Over the years we’ve talked about moving to the suburbs, to a house in better shape than ours – one perhaps with a better bathroom and yard big enough for a trampoline and more green space for the kids, but something continually keeps us in the city. Sometimes it’s a reminder during our minister’s Sunday sermon that as Christians we are supposed to travel lightly and not become bogged down with the more more more our society encourages, other times it’s realizing that adding an actual commute to our daily lives could be our undoing. Whatever the shifting reasons happen to be, they’ve given us an opportunity to witness real change, and the way a neighborhood can evolve over time, and endless opportunities for gratefulness.

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5 thoughts on “the view from my front door

  1. This is so wonderful, in so many ways. Being comfortable in a neighborhood is as important as being comfortable in a house. I’m comfortable where I am, and feel safe here. That hasn’t always been true — or, rather, even when I felt safe in inner-city Houston, I wasn’t, always. On the other hand, I did learn that I could scream loudly enough when mugged to raise an entire city block. 🙂

    I don’t think you’ll find much need for screaming. I hope the changes continue, and that they’re all good.

  2. How wonderful for you & your family. We’ve noticed that slowly-evolving but not noticed until a tipping point effect in 2 neighborhoods we frequent but do not currently live. My husband owned a loft in one of them, sold when we moved to our current home 15 years ago. (I had moved out of the other a few years before). At the time we thought that neighborhood would never meet the potential developers had hoped for since the late 80s. In the last few years, all sorts of restaurants, galleries, co-work spaces, new housing options, and a cool pedestrian/bike trail have opened – 25 yrs after people said it would be hip. We laugh about it. We could never afford to buy back the old place that was sold for about 1/3 of the price of what we moved too. While we can enjoy what it has become and wouldn’t give up our woody retreat out of the city center, it’s difficult not to wonder sometimes “What-if?” I just laugh when people tell me that can’t believe I shop at a speciality grocery “in the hood”. It will take awhile for suburbia to realize that “Dodge City” up & left town and in its place are very livable communities.

  3. Shoreacres – you definitely bring up an important idea about feeling comfortable in a/your neighborhood when probably you shouldn’t – possibly something to explore later! Smithereens – I know – we are really fortunate. Maybe it helps we were prepared for the worst? Anne – those “what ifs” will always be there, I think…it does sound like you have a really nice balance of city access and woody retreat!

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