On Saturday, little Bobby walked down to the corner store. He had no money. But he did have his bookbag and, even at just 9 years old, some practice at getting his hunger sated without the aid of money.
On this morning, though, the owner of the little corner store, that social and economic center of Enderly Park, for better or for worse, was ready for him. She watched, and then she stepped from behind the counter and called him out. “Young man,” she said. “Empty that bookbag.”
Bobby took none too kindly to being caught, and so headed for the door. The store owner beat him there, locked it, and stood in front of it. “Young man,” she said, “I watched you. Now empty the bag.”
Bobby is a beloved child of God, made in God’s image, but he does not handle some things well. And on this morning, he lost it. He flipped over racks, threw the contents of the shelves in the aisles, and made general mayhem in the corner store. Would-be customers stood outside, watching the proceedings as part tragedy, part comedy. This certainly enlivened a sleepy weekend morning. Some bystanders, sensing a potentially unsafe situation, began recording with cell phones.
Indoors, the stand-off continued for just a couple of minutes, until Bobby came to his senses. At that point, the shop owner handed him a broom and they began cleaning together. Meanwhile, customers pulled up, and then pulled away again. Neighbors kept watching and recording. And Bobby kept working. And when the store was set to rights, he left, but not before a kind customer came in and bought him a bag of chips.
Here in Enderly Park, where the next colonies of the gentry are being granted charters by imperial authorities, neighbors hear all the time about how charming and delightful the neighborhood is. How cute, what with this nice architecture and our walkable main street. One developer, knowing that such a fancy from outsiders means displacement is on the way, even asked, “Does all the [historic] character create problems for residents?” This is the real estate equivalent of “she never should have worn that short skirt.” Charming architecture is far from the problem.
What is happening here is the commoditization of the people and places that constitute the neighborhood. Enderly Park might be profitable again, at least for those with the land grant charters, and so the folks with the spreadsheets and the green paper begin turning children and charm into numbers. And when children become numbers, bad things happen. They get moved around, as money in faceless accounts. Kids have limited worth when it comes to turning a profit. Children, especially poor ones, leave things on the table, and when making deals one never wants to leave things on the table. So they are written off when, like bad debt, their presence is deemed harmful and undesirable. Suffer the little children to come somewhere else.
Enderly Park does have actual, unquantifiable charms. One of these is a store owner who loved her neighbor enough to discipline him without yelling at him or harming him or giving up on him or calling armed men to come and steal his body from him. She acted in a very difficult, and potentially dangerous, situation, with love and courage and wisdom. Which is not to say that what she did was perfect or that it fixed everything, but none of that was possible on Saturday morning anyway. In one moment, she did what she could with great compassion. Whatever else he learned, that child could not leave the store without knowing he had received an unusual sort of love. This has the sort of worth that does not compute in spreadsheets.
For all the longing for “authenticity” and “charm” and “neighborliness” in my city today, it is worth stating that this place already has all those things. And they can’t be bought. It has all of that in spite, and perhaps also because of, the lack of public and private investment here for decades. Imagine: what could be if these neighbors just had a fair shake? Imagine if the opportunity for business development had been applied here as elsewhere? Imagine if a right to decent housing had been robustly enforced, so that 40 years of dilapidation would not have accumulated? But now a tidal wave of money is at the gate, and the chance to catch any of it likely won’t happen for those living here through the lean years.
We do have good architecture here, for sure. It is real nice. But buildings do not mean anything without inhabitants. Neighborhoods don’t inspire without neighbors. It takes people to give a place meaning. The people I am lucky to call neighbor are folks whose very lives are a resistance to the idea that a person can be made just a number. And the best investment — even better than real estate! — is in putting these people, and especially these children, first.