In my Inglewood neighborhood, we always tend to keep an eye out for trouble. But few things have occasioned more hand-wringing than the recent arrival of a family whose rent is subsidized by the federal program known as Section 8.
"Oh, Lord," said one neighbor, a stoic, civic-minded, churchgoing woman who looked more unsettled than I'd ever seen her. "Here we go." Another neighbor who is also religious and similarly unflappable looked deeply troubled. Standing out on her lawn and surveying the newly occupied corner house as if it were haunted, she only shook her head, as if there were no words to describe this turn of events.
Both of my neighbors are active stewards of our block club, and one of its functions is delivering a housewarming gift of a plant or flowers to welcome new residents and send an early message of community. No gift was delivered this time, or even discussed.
While I didn't approve of a rejection of these folks that felt almost preemptive, I also understood. We live in a neighborhood that, though not luxurious, is stable and well maintained, with tidy homes, kids skateboarding, people walking dogs. But it's a mostly black neighborhood, and its residents are keenly aware of how little stands between its aspirations and chaos.
Poverty makes all homeowners nervous, but black poverty is terrifying, existing on a whole different scale in the American imagination. When it appears in a neighborhood, middle-class people don't think about tolerating it; they just move somewhere else. It is a historical constant that has driven housing patterns in L.A. and other cities for generations.
Black people are no exception to this kind of flight. My neighbors and I live in Inglewood partly by necessity, partly by choice, but we have the same anxiety about black poverty and its attendant pathologies as people safely ensconced in suburbs. In fact, we have even more because we are so familiar with struggle.
Many residents of my block have roots in the South and grew up with very modest means. We may no longer be poor, but we still know plenty of people who are, including members of our own families. And though most of us are happy to help our less fortunate siblings or nephews or aunts, we prefer to keep struggle out of sight and under our control. The appearance of the Section 8 neighbors shattered the illusion that we can keep poverty and trouble at arm's length. We are the strivers and they are the scourge, and we'd hoped the twain would never have to meet.
It wasn't always like this. Economic diversity used to be a given in black communities, and it made them far more cohesive and resilient. Black people now, including my neighbors, talk longingly about those days when the poor lived among the professionals and the working class, and about how we need to get that kind of unity back. The irony is that that cohesion was largely a product of segregation; my father grew up in a segregated neighborhood right in the heart of L.A. While nobody I know is suggesting that we return to the good old days of Jim Crow, the "unity effect" is sorely missed.
These days black unity is a cherished ideal rather than the fact of life that it used to be. Part of the reason is that, since the 1960s and the end of Jim Crow, blacks have lost the thread of their own story. As we have scattered out from our compact communities, a freedom narrative that was once clear and urgent has become muddy and uninspiring, replaced with tons of downward-trending data and statistics that move no one.
This loss of a black narrative struck me during the recent dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington — "the dream" used to be powerful shorthand for the black narrative. Today the phrase is more associated with the DREAM Act, legislation that seeks to uplift Latino and other immigrants who aggressively seek the inclusion and validation black Americans still haven't fully achieved. This modern iteration of the freedom dream feels entirely appropriate — King would have approved — but it's also a painful reminder that blacks need to examine the tattered state of their own dream.
As I have wrestled with my own doubts about the Section 8 folk, I've had to confront misgivings rooted not just in being a property owner but, more important, in my leeriness of a kind of black person I had assumed I could permanently keep at a distance. So far the family on the corner has done nothing to deserve our fear. They are about the most low-key household on the block, not terribly outgoing but no trouble either. The renters have a small dog they let escape from the yard too often, but they also have children who skateboard up and down the street alongside the kids I know and like.
Far from running the neighborhood down, the family has adapted to its climate, while the old-timers are slowly accepting the fact that those who've been most consistently left out of the dream of old actually have a place here. We certainly haven't re-created the kind of neighborhood my father grew up in. But perhaps this small bit of diversity will bring unexpected benefits. None of this solves the larger problems that still loom for all of us, but it's the story for now.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to The Times' Opinion pages and the author of "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line."