Welcome To The Neighborhood
This story is an excerpt that explores the effects gentrification can have on a community and its foundational members. Clem has been living in this neighborhood forever, and it suddenly changes before her eyes.
I’ve been Clementine’s caregiver for around three years now. She didn’t need one though; she could get by alone, just with a little assistance. Her successful and ambitious kids wouldn’t stay around to keep her company, so I guess I was hired to be her friend more than a caregiver. Clementine would ask me to shop for groceries, pick up prescriptions, and check her mailbox. She would ask me to grab things that were too high up for her to reach, or too close to the floor for her to bend down and reach. Even though Clem resisted my help, sometimes I knew she was secretly grateful that I was there.
Clem walked with a cane and wasn’t able to stand for long periods of time, so anything that required walking far didn’t exactly suit her. Every morning, however, Clem walked to the front of her lawn. She would sit on the cedar bench her late husband built for her and watch as the cars drove by. She would occasionally have a guest: a child skipping along the sidewalk who stopped to accompany her on the bench, or a woman holding bags of groceries who was just saying hello. Clem was very active in the community and very involved in social justice and the neighborhood crime watch. She thought that being a part of her community wasn’t just living in it, but doing things to maintain it.
Clem’s been looking out for this community ever since she first moved in with her husband and kids. Her husband, Mark, was killed while on duty in the military when her oldest child was thirteen. Clem said her house felt emptier than before — even when Mark was out of the country working, she explained, his presence had still been in the house. When he died, it seemed like what was left of him in the house went with him, too, like a piece of Clem’s perfect puzzle was missing. Clem told me her kids made his death much easier to bear with, to accept. They were a distraction, a vessel, into which she could pour her idle love. The community was her vessel too, and she took pride in knowing that.
She’d tell me about how the community used to look, how it had changed. The chipped paint was streaked with water damage and moss, the sides of the houses were overgrown with ivy, and the nests of wasps sat snugly in the corners of roofs where they would never be found. The brass fixtures on the doors and the wooden porches that complained even if you were the lightest of creatures. The creaky gates that never knew the taste or feel of oil and the cracked pavement, where the toddlers would jump and stand on one leg to avoid their mother’s misfortune. She’d mention that something was off about the fact that her black neighbors were leaving and being replaced with rich white ones who didn’t share the same familiarity with the community that she and her old neighbors did. It was the short white-picket fences that turned into tall black metal ones with thick horizontal pickets, the overgrown, well-explored lawns to perfectly trimmed yards. All of what Clem knew was gone in the blink of an eye. She often recalled how she “took care” of the neighborhood, almost like she was responsible for who stayed and who left. She said that she just didn’t know where she fits anymore.
Clem would recall her black neighbors telling her that they were offered large sums of money to sell their home, so they took the offer and left. Clem said she’d seen the letters in the mail, gotten the phone calls, and seen the agents on her porch, but she never paid them any attention. She didn’t like it and would always suck her teeth when she’d receive any message pertaining to selling her home for money.
For the three years that I was Clem’s caregiver, white families came and went into the neighborhood. It was the Johnsons the first year. Clem told me that she would make an apple pie every Sunday for them and eventually they just moved away. For me, I’d only see them occasionally, but every time I did, they had something to complain about, as if I could fix it right there on the spot. In the second year, it was the Millers. Their daughter ended up in the hospital for “stomach-related issues,” as Clem told me, and the family moved again to have her treated at a better hospital. Clem had me put together a little package for them with toys and books for their daughter to have while she recovered. And just last year the Langstons moved in and moved out in the same month. Clem didn’t have a clue why they left—they didn’t even leave a message or a note for us, they just picked everything up and disappeared.
Clem would say, “This place has changed — someone like you wouldn’t notice it, Liyah, but I do. And I don’t like it.”
Last summer I was made increasingly aware of the gentrification issue that my community was struggling with. In a way, I identified with the older people in my community expressing their distaste for the obvious contrast between overly modern homes and dated—almost vintage homes in Brooklyn. Even though I am very young and haven’t lived here long enough to fully understand the scope of this issue, I felt as though I could see the change too and I wanted to express my empathy through this story.
Clem, my main character came to me pretty easily. She is the physical embodiment of this frustration coming from all avenues of Brooklyn’s black natives. In a way, Liyah represents me, even though she can see some of these issues Clem alludes to, she struggles to see clearly through Clem’s weathered lenses of life. Despite this, she is willing to listen—to experience and understand.
Shermaya Paul is a sophomore who lives in Brooklyn. She was the valedictorian of her middle school and the winner of the Congressional App Challenge. She is also an alumni of the UN Junior Ambassador program. She is a talented artist and she likes to write.