My city is changing. Sometimes this bums me out.
Allow me to get this out of the way first: I will not be telling you where I live. The fact is I don’t want my city gaining any more attention than it already has. What I will say is that it is small, urban, and isn’t far from NYC. Once it was known for its factories, later for its high crime rate. It wasn’t a place you would want to go unless you had to. We all know places like this.
I moved there in 2008. When I told people where I was going I caught a lot of static. That’s a rough area, they said. There are crack heads there. I didn’t care. The Metro-North was close. There were two consignment stores, a few galleries, and a coffeehouse in walking distance of my apartment. I was still in school and could get to campus with fair ease. My rent was cheap and included utilities.
A mess of people hung out in the empty lot next to my apartment. I called them the loiterers. They were mostly male, white, and sunburned like they had been breaking gravel all day. Sometimes they would be fixing cars, other times just hanging out by this little fire pit they had made with an empty trash can. They weren’t homeless, but lived in a boarding house close by. I came up with back stories for each of them. Some had chosen a life of drinking after the local mills and factories closed. Others were war vets who came home with broken minds. This was the only way I could make sense of why they yelled or looked at me with suspicion.
It didn’t matter if it was two in the afternoon or two in the morning, one of them would be there, just sitting on a crate, sipping a beer and watching. If I said hello all I got was a hostile stare. It embarrasses me now, but for a time I made a point of not being seen carrying a lot of packages into my building. I would circle my street like a vulture, waiting for their unofficial shifts to change before I parked and hauled my ass inside.
During my first year there my car was keyed several times. It was also hit twice while still parked. I would have taken it personally but the other tenants of my building experienced the same thing. When we would call the cops they would tell us that a lot of bad things happened in the parking lot behind our building. No shit, Officer.
The first time my car was hit was in the evening. I had come down for a cigarette and noticed the damage. A woman was in the loiterers lot. I had seen her before.
“It was a guy in a pickup truck,” she said when I asked her if she had seen what had happened. “He had a wife beater on.”
Her name was Debbie and she was a gangly thing. With long red head and a face that was etched with lines, she looked as if she could take off with the breeze. She moved like a sprite which made me nervous. I didn’t believe her story about a truck backing out from a side street and ramming my Honda. The area of the damage told me it was far more plausible that someone had peeled out of the vacant lot her friends and her liked and hit my car in the process. When I called the police she bolted around the corner, not to be seen for the rest of the night. When the cops came and I mentioned her name they laughed to one another. They knew Debbie but that’s all they would say.
Shortly after, we were hit with a bad snow storm. The city lost power. While trying to dig my car out I encountered another face I recognized. Like Debbie I had seen him in the vacant lot. He sort of reminded me of a bulldog. His face a brick wall, impervious to hellos, smiles or any neighborly pleasantry. He still rocked a mullet. I called him Joe, even if only to myself.
Joe’s car was stuck next to mine. He and a little Hispanic woman were trying to dig out with this mediocre shovel when it suddenly snapped, slicing the woman’s hand. You’re so stupid, Joe said to her. I went to fetch her bandages and offered to help dig them out.
I was pretty pissed when they pulled away without a thank-you, but after that day, if someone in his group yelled obscenities or gave me a rude gesture Joe told them to leave me alone. He began to nod at me when we passed in the street. I stopped hiding my groceries.
I began to settle into the area. I got to know the store owners and went to the community events. I took advantage of the farmer’s market and free alcohol they gave out at gallery openings. If I looked out my window chances were I recognized the person walking the street beneath me. Some local artists had come together to create murals on the abandon buildings. I found quiet scenic spots would I could write. People still had bad things to say about the place but I didn’t care. The people who had been there for years spoke of it with a sense of pride. There was a spirit of inclusiveness there. At any given time you could see a guy walking down a street strumming his guitar, skateboarders doing tricks in the street, or a group of kids dancing on the side walk like they were auditioning for You Got Served. It was always sort of weird and fantastic in its randomness.
Two winters into my stay things began changing. A lot of people were feeling the sting of the recession in the city and surrounding areas. Some of the restaurants and stores closed for not enough traffic on the weekdays. I was disappointed but not surprised. The place wasn’t a metropolis; most days it bordered on sleepy. The majority of its citizens were commuters and seniors who had lived there for decades. There was a lot of talk about being broke or laid off.
Things were going well for some. The vacant lot had been turned into parking spaces for a bakery. I hadn’t seen any loiterers for some time when suddenly one day I saw Debbie walking a fluffy little white dog. No matter how shitty the weather, she’d be out there with it, laughing as it frolicked in the snow or galloped through puddles. Debbie’s frame looked sturdier, her face brighter. She was smiling. I wanted to tell her she looked great, happier. But all I said was hello and that her dog was cute.
Once I graduated I struggled to find a job in my field. I had worked all through college and had never expected that having a degree would result in a better life. Still, you hope. I had planned to move once school ended but now couldn’t afford too. Rent was even increasing in my area. While looking for close by apartments I found myself stunned by what was being offered. Who pays fifteen hundred to live in a four hundred square foot apartment? And with no utilities included? This isn’t Manhattan.
The increase of rentals was a sign of things to come. While everyone was cutting back the city was building itself up. Some publication had dubbed us a new scene for art and suddenly new spots were opening. There were now several wine bars and breweries. Restaurants that served polenta and ostrich eggs popped up. When I looked out my window it reminded me of a photo shoot for Urban Outfitters. The sparse gallery openings were now like clubs, crowded and sweaty. There was no longer a friendly gallery owner greeting me but a group of people who looked at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you doing here?” So much for inclusiveness.
More time passed. I worked three part-time jobs to stay afloat. Meanwhile the warehouses with murals were being turned into condominiums and lofts that cost more than two grand a month. A dog park appeared and futuristic bike racks peppered popular stops. More restaurants and shops opened. While some of changes were exciting, part of me would’ve been happier to see a company like Tough Mudder or even Quidsi move in; something that could provide jobs with real salaries to the people I knew. My friends in other areas started forwarding me articles naming my city “up and coming” and “the new Brooklyn.” I found it absurd. There weren’t any companies or start-ups. There was no L train. So many of the familiar faces I had come to look for had disappeared.
One day I learned that the boarding house was being changed into a boutique hotel. An unexpected wave of anger hit me. Maybe the hype was true. This was the new hot place and soon I would be priced out with all the other people I had come to know. My neighbor Steve, a researcher by day and a poet by night, was looking to leave. “I just can’t afford it,” he said.
I knew what he meant, but I refused to follow his lead. I wasn’t going to be pushed out. I had come to love the place and it didn’t seem fair that I should have to give up the city I now thought of as my home. I would enjoy the new scene as long as I could. Even if I didn’t like wine or ostrich eggs I would make the rounds, get to know the new shop owners, do whatever it took to have a sense of community.
Two years after I got my cap and gown I’ve finally found a job in my field. When I work from home I still can look out my window to spy those down below. It is not exactly like it was when I first landed but I suppose we learn to adapt. I’ve gotten to know some of the newbies and I still go to the galleries to get my free drink on, stink-eye givers be damned. But some days I still sort of worry when an old joint goes down and a new shop rises in its place. I no longer see Debbie.