Before the newlyweds across the street went on their honeymoon, they asked me to keep an eye on their house. Yesterday, a neighbor two doors down, an elderly Mexican woman, brought me a big bowl of chicken soup. In the fall, I know that another neighbor will leave sacks of persimmons by my front door. I know that my neighbor across the street is depressed because the company he works for has filed for bankruptcy. I know that his next-door neighbor’s 15-year-old daughter has started taking insulin.
The lots in Normal Heights are small. Clearances between buildings are narrow. Our streets are narrow. This intimacy was compounded during the 1960s and 1970s when many of the single-family homes were demolished to make way for high-density apartment buildings. Sixteen people, for example, live to my immediate right. A family of five to my left. We can hear each other laugh, cough, sneeze, and weep. Without really wanting to, we share in each other’s lives.
Eighteen different languages are spoken at Adams Elementary. In the late afternoon while I water my lawn, I watch Eritrean women pass by in their long white cotton shawls. The Cambodians who live across the alley have an elaborate setup of plastic wading pools in which they grow Ipomoea aquatica, or water spinach. At North Park Produce, a store three blocks away, I shop beside veiled women, turbaned men, and people wearing national dress I can’t identify. There are a number of idle young African-American men who live on my block. They flirt with gang activity. They sell a little weed on the side. They always smile and address me with formality, “Good morning, sir.”
It’s not quite heaven. A few weeks ago, late at night, Mexican teens gathered across the street, rap blaring from their car stereos. I stood on my porch and hollered, “Excuse me, but the judgmental white people in this neighborhood are trying to get some sleep!” They looked at me. They looked at each other. They laughed. They dispersed.
We judgmental white people are growing in number here. The small house I bought two years ago has doubled in value. A block or so away on Meade Avenue, the owners of a two-bedroom, one-bath, 800-square-foot home have put it on the market for $410,000. Rents have also increased. Over at the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee, well-intentioned activists fret that housing costs are driving immigrants and other low-income minorities from the neighborhood. Most of us, I think, would like to preserve the diversity we enjoy and admire. We’re not sure if it’s possible to maintain it.
I like to walk at night and think. I know by heart almost all the streets between Adams Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, between I-805 and 15. I know which homes have pit bulls or rottweilers. I know which homes are prone to domestic disputes. I know which homes are strangely silent. I always feel safe. On almost every block I know someone by name.