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Singing the praises of a neighborhood living out loud


Five years ago, my husband and I moved to the south side of St. Louis. Gingerbread bungalow, circa 1940, in a quiet-conservative-Catholic neighborhood so whitebread it embarrassed us. The area was best described as “scrubby Dutch” -- except that the Dutch, legendary for their diligent housekeeping, were dying. As we watched, they were gradually replaced by Bosnians, Vietnamese, African-Americans, Arabs and young white yuppies looking to discover new diversity amid cheap, charming, old-brick housing stock.

Southampton is fast becoming what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development holds out as its new goal: an economically mixed, racially diverse community of responsible neighbors, the kind who plant petunias, pick up their newspapers and leave their porch light on all night.

Things are changing.

Last week, for example, we had a yard sale. An Asian couple bought my mom’s jumbo ceramic coffee mugs; a Bosnian woman bought the original watercolor that had rippled with the attic’s heat. An Indian couple thumbed through my old murder mysteries. A young African-American woman showed her boyfriend the gold comb and mirror set Andrew’s grandmother used in the ’30s. I glowed at my husband, perspiration mixing with triumph, and murmured -- as I bagged china for the scrubby Dutch holdouts -- “It’s not whitebread anymore.”

That sounds patronizing, smug, multicultural to the point of nausea. But I swear I’m not “celebrating diversity.” I’m celebrating the life the change has brought to the neighborhood. More children, more people sitting out on their front porches; more music, more pungent smells at dinnertime, more -- OK, variety. I like watching an older couple swathed in traditional Arab dress solemnly escort a little boy to the bus stop every morning. I like talking to the slightly batty woman from Armenia about her boyfriends.

I like people living out loud.

And I don’t mind the dropping property values one bit. Because what I’ve noticed, in years of daily dog walks with my eyes wide open, is a definite ratio. The more money and secure societal position, the less visible, audible life.

Some of the houses in the area have stayed small and shotgun-plain, and they’re showing some wear around the edges. Others, however, have improved with age, their owners adding fireplaces and fancy windows, mother-in-law cottages in back, terraced landscaping and gazebos and trellised arbors. Sprinkled amid mediocrity, these are the desirable, enviable houses.

But they’re also the houses with tall privacy fences shielding their beautiful landscaping from view; motion detector lights discouraging neighbors from congregating on the sidewalk; anonymous hired contractors who do the fixing-up jobs; entertainment centers and recreation budgets that keep the family either inside or gone.

The nicer the house, the less chance you’ll have to get to know its residents.

Is this what Jesus meant by rich men squeezing through needles’ eyes? I’d always thoughtlessly assumed that the evil of money was its unequal distribution; that there would be nothing wrong with secure, luxurious comfort as long as we all had equal access to it.

But what I’ve seen in these years is an inexorable turning inward: The more material goods people have to protect, the safer and luckier they feel, the higher the walls they build to shut out a world that might threaten their status. Some turn a wee bit Calvinist, subconsciously deciding they must be somehow superior to have made out so well. Others seem convinced it’s random luck, but having had it, they’re determined to defend it from life’s vagaries.

Odd, how few of the “things money can buy” are actually designed to bring people together. When a family manages to squirrel away some disposable income for home improvements, they don’t create an inviting patio off the front porch where neighbors can stop by, rest in a rocker and chat. They build a privacy fence and put a locked hot tub inside the enclosure, and there it waits, waiting for them to make some private time to use it.

Not that poverty is any guarantee of openness, cooperation, or acknowledged need and warm gratitude. Often living at the margins makes people a bit furtive, keeping a fortress mentality until they’re sure they will survive and be accepted. Even in the new Southampton, those of us in the mediocre houses remain a bit wary of each other. We haven’t yet learned to coexist comfortably, with the easy exchanges that flow from an agreed-upon collective identity. Without benefit of the old scrubby-Dutch code -- Sunday-morning Mass, 6 a.m. lawn sprinkling, barbecued brats and beer -- maybe we never will.

On the other hand, a little boy approached one weekend while I was gardening, said hi and asked if he could have a drink from our hose. Busy trying everything short of CPR on some dying zinnias, I was too preoccupied to ask his name, but I heard the hint of an accent when he thanked me for the ice water I brought him instead of the hose. “He was probably Bosnian,” my husband guessed later. “No American kid would have assumed enough neighborliness to ask for a drink in the first place.”

Especially if his folks could afford bottled water or a refrigerator with a spigot in the door so the kids can be self-reliant.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999