What We Show to Our Neighbors
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
At my old house on Vista Street in Northeast DC, we had a large Black Lives Matter sign hanging off our front porch. It's the same bed sheet I reference in My Armor, the one Kyra made last summer. Multiple neighbors have complimented us on it over the past year, and it made me proud to display such a clear and visible symbol of solidarity with Black lives.
As we were preparing a few months ago to move into our new home in Southeast's Barry Farm, a friend asked me if we were planning to display the sign in front of the new house. It's a question I'd already been considering and grappling with in my head. The neighborhood we were moving into is overwhelmingly Black - while I can't speak to exact numbers, Ward 8 as a whole is 92% Black and I'd guess that our street is in that ballpark. As a white couple moving into a predominantly Black neighborhood, telling our new neighbors loudly and unequivocally that Black Lives Matter might be a good way to announce our wokeness and allyship.
Or would it? The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became with the idea. In our old neighborhood, I felt eager and proud to make a statement in support of Black lives. I lived in that neighborhood (also majority Black, though to a lesser extent) for nearly a decade. I knew many of my neighbors, and had for several years. I had longstanding relationships and trust with the people who lived around me. None of this was true moving into a recently built home in a community that we were totally foreign to. Something else I noticed as I visited our new neighborhood more and more - there was nary a BLM sign in sight (plenty of support for DC statehood though #51for51).
On the day we got the keys to our new home, I met the man who lives directly across the street. His name is David, and he told me that he’s lived in his home for 30 years. He was kind and courteous, but I couldn't help but wonder what he must be thinking watching this young white couple move into a sparkling new townhome across the street. On one side of his house is a row of five chic, recently built townhomes (very similar to the ones across the street that we now reside in), and on the other side is a vast empty lot where I imagine more chic townhomes will spring up in the next few years. If we were to hang our BLM sign out front, he would be the main recipient of its message. It would be staring him in the face 24/7, when he looks out of his window or sits on his porch or works on his cars. How would that make him feel? What message would that send? That my wife and I are good neighbors? That we're not THOSE kinds of white people, the ones who are afraid to live in a Black neighborhood? That we believe that Black Lives Matter? Or that we want to make sure our neighbors know we believe that Black Lives Matter? Would we be promoting solidarity with our new community, or would we be easing our own consciences about our role in gentrification and assuaging our white guilt?
Ultimately, we decided that the sign should stay stashed away in the basement, at least for the time being. It feels too performative, too shallow, too trite. It feels like putting a bandaid on an open wound. Most of all though, it just doesn't feel like being a good neighbor. The truth is our neighborhood is going through the process of gentrifying, and we just became a major part of that process. In the couple years since my wife finished her schooling, our financial situation has improved considerably. It feels strange after so many years of life as a struggling artist and a full-time student, but we've become relatively affluent. After looking up some of the statistics, I was shocked to find that our household income is more than double that of the median for Ward 8 (the median for DC as a whole is also more than double Ward 8). The doubling doesn’t stop there; more than a quarter of Ward 8's families live in poverty, and nearly a fifth of its residents are unemployed - in both cases, these numbers are more than double what they are District-wide.
I knew before we bought our home that Ward 8 was the poorest, Blackest ward in DC and had been for a long time. I also knew that I felt comfortable living in a neighborhood that was majority Black, both in theory and in practice. But I didn't really consider what our presence might mean to our neighbors until after our offer on the home was accepted. The homebuying process moves so quickly, and we didn't begin to consider the ramifications of our arrival in the neighborhood until it was too late to reverse course. This is no excuse, and a classic example of white privilege; as soon as we started looking at homes east of the river we should have had a more serious discussion about gentrification and done more research into the neighborhoods we were browsing. But at this point, it's too late. And a bed sheet with some words on it isn't going to change that.
Instead, I've been reflecting this past month on how we can truly be good neighbors and responsible residents of our new neighborhood going forward. As always, it starts with education - I've been reading and learning a lot about Barry Farm and its history, as well as the history of Ward 8 and DC as a whole. I've played basketball at the local rec center and I've taken walks past our neighborhood elementary school. I've gotten in touch with our council member and advisory neighborhood commissioner. I've waved at folks as they drive past, and I've walked up and down the street picking up trash (our block has three bus stops but no trash cans). But most of all, I've just been trying to get to know our new neighbors. I met one woman who told me she'd lived her entire life on our street, growing up in one house before moving to the one right next door. I also met a man (and his dog) next door to us who moved in just the week after we did. I have many more to meet in the coming months and years, and lots more to learn. For now though, I just want to take it slow, one day at a time. I want to make this place feel like home, while honoring the fact that it's already home to a lot of other folks who were here years, if not decades, before we were.
Our new house backs up to a treeline that borders the Suitland Parkway, a winding highway that connects Ward 8 to Navy Yard and South Capitol Street via the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Every day, tens of thousands of commuters from Southeast, Prince George’s County and beyond drive into and out of downtown DC using Suitland Parkway. The road is surrounded by trees on both sides, making it a pleasant and relatively peaceful ride. As we were moving into our new home, I noticed that when you drive past it on Suitland there's a small break in the trees. Most of the houses on our street are obstructed from the parkway, but the back of our little stretch of townhomes is clearly visible, sitting atop a hill. One day as I drove past, it clicked. It was time to unpack a certain bed sheet.
For the thousands of strangers who drive past the rear of our home every minute, every hour, every day, I've got no problem telling them as loudly as I can that I believe that Black Lives Matter. But for the dozens of neighbors I see when I step out my front door, I'd really rather show them.
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