Saturday was an absolutely stunning day, warm and sunny and filled with possibilities. My youngest child decided on her own to join a community service group at her school and spent the day along with a group of friends spending time with an elderly woman doing chores and making a new friend. I keep thinking I must have done something right for a girl to give up a gorgeous Saturday to give back to an older person. While my child was out being a better person than I can ever hope to be, I decided to drive back to my old neighborhood and visit, even if that just meant taking a walk around the block.
The public housing complex where I spent the first seventeen years of my life is still there. Some things have changed,such as a fresh coat of paint on the balconies and the bricks. The tree that stood outside the bedroom window I shared with my mother no longer exists and the chain link fence has been repaired. When I was a child the fence served multiple purposes including being a place to hang the freshly laundered clothes as they dried and for attaching a toddler (myself included) to with a harness. The courtyards in the complex all look like they were recently paved over into a concrete jungle. The windows look new, and the doors that blocked the entrances have been updated as well. I did not recognize a single person residing there, but why should I? The last time I lived there it was 1986.
While so much has changed, so much has remained the same. There is still a large tree in the middle courtyard with a bench in front of it. A sign that reads “NO BALL PLAYING” still is affixed to the building closest to Willis Street in the center yard. The community mailboxes are still at the end: a dumpster still stands in the complex near the alley way. Children still play games in the courtyard without an adult present. Just as when I was a child watchful eyes were everywhere peering outside the windows looking at the strange white woman taking pictures. I will admit I was a bit frightened to stand in the presence of my old home even in broad daylight because one thing never changed and that was the look of defeat on the faces of the people I did see. Just like my childhood days there is a sense of safety simply standing across the street looking in to what is an often foreign and misunderstood world. The people never really change, their stories have all been told over and over again through the years. Immigrants getting a fresh start, single mothers in need of a home, people unable to afford housing for reasons such as addictions, being poorly educated, or even mental illness. The faces have changed, the color of their skin has changed but not much else. I hope that past sins do not repeat themselves in those walls, the sins of mothers hurting their children and others looking away and the gravest sin of allowing their children to remain caught in the web of poverty.
I took pictures of the old place because I need to be connected in any way I can to myself. I was born there, my history is there and I will forever be connected to my humble beginnings. If I were brave, I would have knocked on the door of apartment 1 and asked to have a look inside. I doubt that much has changed on the inside, there was a basic layout but I hope the kitchen was renovated and the peeling paint on the pipes in the bathroom was taken care of. To the people residing there now I am a stranger but I am in a way part of their world, I am the original “owner” of their home and I would love to see if any of the marks I left still reside.
I decided to go for a walk, the neighborhood has an interesting dichotomy. You drive down Willis Street and see lovely victorian homes, single family homes and then the public housing complex. There are a few run down tripe decker houses, and from Bakersfield Street (where I lived) over the neighborhood is a stark contrast of the haves and the have nots. Lovely trees and a few flower gardens adorn houses that look out to a concrete jungle and poverty on the opposite side of the street. People still say the neighborhood is good from this end down but the other half forget about it. I walked over to the house where my husband was raised. He and I lived a few hundred yards away form each other and yet we came from 2 totally different worlds. While I was brought up in public housing with a single mother, he was raised in a single family home at first with an intact nuclear family and later by parents who could no longer live together. He lived in a house with space and privacy and I had a one bedroom apartment beneath a dangerous schizophrenic and was infested with roaches. Once we got married I lived in his family home after my husband’s mother passed away much too early. Initially we planned to live in that house until our baby was old enough to go to kindergarten, but changing neighborhoods in the city and unstable relatives caused us to rethink our plan and we move away to the suburbs. Selling the house was not an easy decision, but at that very moment we needed to do the right thing for our family.
The house looks beautiful, the new owners (well I can not call them new as they have lived there 20 years now) have lovingly restored the home and added some gorgeous new features as well. I said hello to them as they sat outside and was warmly greeted and invited inside. I was overjoyed to see all the improvements made to this very old and very beautiful home. The neighbors are a mix of old and new, and the houses while all old have all had new improvements. There were some traces of my husband’s family still inside, we joked about the raised velvet wallpaper that once covered the walls in the entrance hall and the parlor. I told them how my husband and I thought about stripping and then said never mind, they told me the wallpaper has only been gone a short time because they felt the exact same way. The old carpets are gone and beautiful hardwood floors are in its place, the stairs and the intricate banister have been lovingly restored. A new and beautiful kitchen is in the place of the old one and upstairs the attic has been fully restored. One piece of my husband still remains, a sticker from the United States Marine Corps still is attached to what used to be his bedroom door.
While I was in my husband’s old house, I made new friends and it was the highlight of my day. I actually had some very old pictures that my husband scanned into our computer that somehow made their way on to my iPhone whenI synched the device. The pictures were from either the late 1960s or early 1970s and there was the gold raised velvet wallpaper, my inlaw’s old furniture (which looked almost identical to the current resident’s furniture just different upholstery) and the fireplace that still does not work and still looks exactly the same. I thanked them profusely for allowing me in and they invited my whole family to come back and visit. They understood how hard it was for us to leave behind a part of our history and seemed grateful that the house became such a part of theirs.
I walked back to my car soaking in as much of my history as I could. When we existed together, I could not wait to get out. I spent 17 years feeling like a proverbial square peg in a round hole and now I see my roots are planted there , but I needed to grow elsewhere. I know I could never stay and be healthy and happy but now I am ready to embrace my roots.