Neighborhood Effects

I’ve been thinking a lot about community. Last week I voted in the L.A. mayorial election. I didn’t really have a deep attachment to either candidate, but I couldn’t help but think that I should at least pretend to walk my talk and focus on local issues rather than letting national ones eclipse everything else.

I walked to my polling place. I have a friend who insists that voting in person is more civic and community minded than voting absentee. I decided to take his argument one step further. It’s not just about seeing the people in your polling place at the time you vote. It’s about seeing the people in your community. Who is out on the street. What do the blocks between here and there look like.

I don’t walk much in L.A. (Don’t even start with the song lyrics. “Nobody walks in LA” is utter bullshit; in poor neighborhoods lots and lots of people walk). I used to walk more in my old neighborhood since there was a drug store within a few blocks. But even there once I got my car, I stopped being locally self-locomoting.

I’d forgotten how different neighborhoods feel on the ground. I know the blocks around my house well enough. I’ve explored a little there. I walk to the 7-11 on occasion (too often, though, I drive… to buy ice cream… how sad). But I almost never cross Hoover. The neighborhood West of Hoover is ever so slightly sketchier than the blocks around our place. I can’t point to anything solid that makes me less comfortable in that segment of the neighborhood than my own, but even were it closer I wouldn’t walk to La Barca (our favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant) at night, whereas I have walked over to 7-11 after dark with only a minor fluttering of nerves (and anger at a world that makes walking at night such an issue for me). But, at 5 in the evening with bright LA sunshine beating down, there was no reason to think that I’d have any problems going to vote.

So I headed out. And it was an interesting adventure. Just after I crossed Hoover a car drove past and honked. I looked up and the (male) driver waved. I was mildly put out about this. I hate being forced into street interactions with men I don’t know. I hate the presumption that somehow my mere existence in the world should somehow satisfy their sexual needs, if only verbally. I hate being drug into interaction. So I was a bit annoyed at Mr. Honk&Wave. Of course I was grateful it had just been a way and not a “hey baby” yelled out the window. As far as creepiness goes it was largely innocous.

And so I kept walking. It’s important, perhaps, to note that I am not the majority demographic in my neighborhood. I am white, appear vaguely middle-class, and speak English as my first language. The neighborhood is predominantly immigrant Latinos. The houses are run down and it isn’t uncommon to see men in front yards working on cars. It’s a very comfortable neighborhood to me because I grew up in a rural working class environment and somehow, despite the radical differences between there and here, this neighborhood feels like home.

After voting I came back up a different street. I was quite content and relaxed, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze. I passed a man hauling a refrigerator. He paused and moved slightly to the side so I could pass. Without thinking about it I murmured “gracias” as I slid past. (He had spoken in Spanish to two women blocking the sidewalk). I rounded the corner and my breath was taken away by murals that I had never really registered on the side of the corner building. How many times have I driven past those paintings without a second glance? I am obsessed with mural art, and so I paused to take in the colors (and wished I had my camera in hand).

Walking up the street I was surprised by the number of dogs. Lots of barking as I passed. “Beware of Dog” signs. In some sense I could understand why people would be nervous on these streets. Decaying houses, barking dogs, working class men out on the street (who regardless of ethnicity do tend to come off as more threatening than middle class men). But I felt entirely content and comfortable.

As I came up toward a driveway a man crossed in front of me, heading up the driveway. He looked my way and said hello. It was something that would normally annoy me, make me feel put upon with its presumptiousness. I think he said “how’s it going.” Before I could even open my mouth to answer he had turned his head back to his own path and was going about his business. Not an insistence upon interaction, merely an acknowledgement of my presence. I was oddly comforted.

I came to the corner. A car was waiting at the stop sign to turn left. I paused to let him pass, but he waved me across. As he turned he smiled and said something out his open window. I couldn’t hear him well enough to understand what he said. But oddly I didn’t care. I just smiled in response and turned away.

It struck me suddenly that what felt right about all these interactions was that they were simply friendly. Growing up I was used to waving at people as they passed. If you drive past a neighbor’s house and they are outside you wave, whether you know them well or not. This felt like that. Somehow even Mr. Honk&Wave felt almost like that. And I felt utterly unthreatened.

Saturday I walked to the corner store to buy some orange juice. The cashier asked me “do you need a bag sweetheart” when I paid for the juice. I smile and told her no. On my walk back I passed a group of three women in conversation who said hello to me.

It is an odd feeling. But somehow it is like this little section of LA is it’s own small town. Except less restrictive because none of these people actually know me.

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