Recently, I was at a workshop with teachers from all over the school district where I work. I do not live within the boundaries of that school district; my house is 25 miles from my work. At lunch, I was talking to a teacher from the next middle school over from the one where I work, and I found out that he lives fairly close to me. In the course of our conversation, he asked where else I had taught. I mentioned one of my previous schools, and how during the time I was there, which was during the early-2000s real estate bubble, I had seen the school and the surrounding neighborhood change. The original homeowners who had moved in when the area was first built, in the early 1990s, were all leaving for even bigger houses, in gated communities, and even longer commutes. The vacuum was being filled by renters and first-time homebuyers from Oakland and Richmond, and their kids who were bringing Oakland and Richmond out to the suburbs with them. After I said this, the other teacher I was talking to said that the same kind of thing is happening where we live.
I normally get really defensive, and really annoyed, when people put down where I live or point out how bad things are here. There are a lot of alarmist attitudes about the world out there, and there are plenty of places that are a lot worse than where I live. However, the guy has a point. It isn’t happening to the extent that it happened where I lived during the real estate bubble, but this area has seen more gang and criminal activity than it did previously. Some of the neighbors I had when I moved to this house in 2008 have moved to wealthier more distant suburbs because they perceive my neighborhood as unsafe. And I have mixed feelings about this sort of mentality.
Do I want to stay somewhere that has changed to the point that it doesn’t feel like home anymore? Do I want to stay where I am out of convenience when a better life might be attainable for me somewhere else? This area certainly isn’t as bad as the area I was talking about to the other teacher, or the city where I grew up, but he has a point that it is difficult to argue. This area isn’t the same as it was when I moved here in 2006, and it is very different from what it was when my house was built in 1994. Will things continue to get worse here, and do I want to be around for that? As I’ve said before, I spent the second half of 2005 thinking I was going to start over somewhere outside of California. Did I miss my chance? Would I be better off getting out while I can?
But, on the other hand, my gut reaction is to say that this course of action only makes the problem worse. If things get bad and everyone runs away, then that is tantamount to surrendering the neighborhood to the criminal element, leaving no one left to stand up and defend the neighborhood against this sort of influence. I don’t want to live in fear, constantly running away from a shadow enemy that I’m too afraid to face, and it scares me how many people live this way. One time, when Cruithne, the roommate I didn’t get along with, lived here, I had to take my car to get fixed. It was still under warranty at the time, so I had to take it to the dealership, which was about six miles away. I said that I was going to drop off the car in the morning, on a day I wasn’t working, and then run home. (At the time I was still able to run six miles without stopping. I just started running again, so maybe I’ll be back at that point someday.) Cruithne asked me where the car place was, I told him, and he gave me that look of disapproval that I became so used to in the years he lived here. “You don’t want to do that,” he said. “That’s a BAD neighborhood.” For one thing, I’d lived here long enough to know that neighborhood’s reputation perfectly well; I didn’t need Cruithne to take that condescending tone with me. But more importantly, I’d been on many bike rides through that neighborhood over the years, and while I can tell it’s a bit run down with a mostly lower income population, I genuinely had no fear of running down a fairly busy street at 11 in the morning. During my run, I only saw one guy who looked like the kind of undesirable element that Cruithne was talking about, with his hoodie and baggy jeans and gold teeth. And do you know what I did? I didn’t go out of my way to avoid him. I didn’t eye him with suspicion, making sure he wasn’t going to shoot me. Instead, I smiled and said hi. And he smiled and said hi back.
I’ve been rereading Genesis lately. This morning, I read the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (chapters 18 and 19). God told Abraham that he was going to destroy these two cities because of their wickedness and disobedience. Abraham’s nephew Lot lives in Sodom, so Abraham prays, asking God if he will still destroy the cities even if there are a few righteous people there, and God says he will not. Eventually, two angels sent by God visit Lot, warning him to get out of town and never look back, because God is about to rain down fire and brimstone. Lot and his family escape just before the destruction, but Lot’s wife disobeys God and looks back, and God turns her into a pillar of salt.
It seems to me like my neighborhood has more followers of God in it than Sodom did in the days of the patriarchs, but sometimes I still wonder if something like this could happen. I don’t mean literal fire and brimstone, but maybe whatever public policies that have caused California to fall into this downward spiral might continue to a point where I really do have to leave to survive. Or maybe some other circumstance in my life will change, leading me somewhere else. Maybe I’ll get to a point where I want to live closer to work, or maybe a clear opportunity will present itself in another state, or maybe I’ll meet a girl who is perfectly right for me but she lives somewhere else or has to move somewhere else (of course, that didn’t work out so well last time). But unless and until that day comes, I refuse to live in fear. If God speaks clearly to me, as he did to Lot and as he did to me regarding where I was living before, telling me that I have no future here, then I will pack my bags, but I will not leave where I am solely because the neighborhood is changing. Wake up, people: the entire world is changing, and you can’t run forever from things that make you uncomfortable. This is my home, and I will not surrender. I will stand and fight for what makes it great.