I’m Watching My Neighborhood Grow Whiter Through the Window

I wonder how much longer my 13-year-old Black son can run freely through a neighborhood that is growing whiter

Two young African-American girls walk together, holding hands during the Leimert Park Rising Juneteenth celebration in LA.
Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Gentrification of the Black Beverly Hills did not start with Covid-19, but it feels like it. A slow whitening of Windsor Hills/View Park began in the late 1990s and then gathered steam during the Great Recession of 2008. Now, 12 years later, the area is teeming with baby strollers pushed by white hands. Before the world ground to a halt, I saw the white residents in passing — a wave here, a smile there. Though we shared a street, our lives remained separate. But then mid-March came and school closed. For the foreseeable future, we would be safer at home. The pandemic had not only brought sickness and death, but it also arrived with a Spike Lee Double Dolly shot that forced me to see our surroundings, that is, white neighbors, up close.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, Black families lived and loved in this bedroom community. I grew up here, knowing my neighbors well and taking comfort in the fact that they were watching out for us, even when we couldn’t see them. Now, I am the adult on the street, peeking between blinds, keeping an eye on the younger kids, and admonishing them to look before crossing the street. But I know I’m not the only adult peeking through blinds — and increasingly, many of my neighbors keeping watch are white. Thinking of them, I wonder how much longer my 13-year-old Black son can run freely through a neighborhood that is growing whiter with each home purchase.

These new residents are making it clear that these streets, my streets, are now theirs too. Needless to say, the rapid gentrification is rankling some of the older Black homeowners, (though the real issue is predatory white realtors, who pretend to care about the character of View Park’s historic designation). But to my kids, a friend is a friend, and their increased free time has led them to rediscover the friendship of the white kids who live across the street.

The Shaws, all 10 of them, are a nice family. The kids range in age from seven to early twenties. They are friendly, well-behaved, great athletes, and homeschooled. They have lived in Windsor Hills/View Park for more than a decade, having bought at the beginning of the Columbusing of this neighborhood.

When the kids play hide and seek together, they scatter over several blocks, seeking cover behind tall trees, thick bushes, parked cars, and side yards. While they giggle and shush each other trying not to get caught, I hold my own breath, worried that one of the white neighbors will accuse the Black boys of trespassing.

These violations do not apply to Meghan and Emily Shaw, the white girls from across the street. Their skin carries privilege and entitlement. They can hide where they want, and run up and down the street without a second thought. No one will look out their kitchen window and read their presence as a threat. I wish I could say the same for the Black boys ranging in age from six to 13 who comprise this crew. My colorful seven-year-old daughter frequently joins the fun. Hands down, she is a cutie pie, but in a few years, white folks will misread her heart-shaped face as older and experience her wit as sass. Our children’s age is not the problem, it’s their race and that keeps Black parents up at night.

Racial antennae up, we Black parents talk amongst ourselves. Because we now live in a gentrifying neighborhood, we worry about our kid’s safety. We want to keep the tech-free fun meter high, and not bother their spirits with race-based rules that start with you can’t do what they do. Someone might assume the worst… call the police… or hurt you. But we can’t ignore the danger and have the talk anyway. White parents don’t have these conversations with their kids, even in neighborhoods where they are the minority.

I often wonder if our kids ever discussed what was happening in the world with the white kids across the street.

Oh, how we wish this fear was irrational. But 2020 is not the summer of love. This is the summer that finally (hopefully) woke white people to a terrifying truth: Black bodies are not safe in these streets. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging; a white woman falsely accused a Black bird watcher of harassment; Breonna Taylor was asleep when she was murdered by the police; and George Floyd couldn’t breathe under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota and died. It’s like the bottom fell out of an already stressful situation.

So, we, Black parents, gear up for another conversation about the vilification of Black males, the weaponization of white female privilege, and how, even within the confines of our formerly all-Black neighborhood, they must be mindful of where they are at all times. The world has intervened again and the pandemic, which is doing a great job of shining bright lights on racial, economic, and gender inequities in health care, education, and employment, reminds us that it is hard to escape the feeling that it is open season on Black people.

When the peaceful protests for Black Lives Matter broke out, my kids and I were safe at home. When the protests turned violent, we were still safe at home. The mass gatherings occurred north and west of Black neighborhoods, spread across several days in affluent white Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Our community was spared tear gas, looting, and rubber bullets. I was grateful to not have a front-row seat to the passion and chaos. My kids were confused and scared and I spent hours checking in with them. I reexplained racism in America and offered empathy for citizens so tired and angry of being abused by police and ignored by the mainstream that they resorted to violence to be heard. Overnight, our white and Black neighbors began posting Black Lives Matter signs in windows and lawns. They seemed aware, perhaps for the first time, that truth and reconciliation, in a society that has been for 450 years separate and unequal, is necessary.

Once the curfew was lifted, my son finally expressed that he felt his mortality, and that broke my heart. He needed help processing the pandemic, school closure, protests, and so much violence. Luckily, he had his Black male friend group and the school psychologist, whom I enlisted, because I didn’t want him to hold such angst inside his sensitive 13-year old soul. He eventually rallied and carried on, though I know these events will remain with him for the rest of his life.

I often wonder if our kids ever discussed what was happening in the world with the white kids across the street. I also wonder if their parents spoke with them about race or were they silent, so as not to disrupt their childhood. Honestly, I can’t tell. The kids continued playing together and getting on each other’s nerves, but then a new thing happened. Meghan and Emily began riding their bikes beyond the neighborhood for donuts and tacos and our boys asked for that same freedom. My gut reaction was no — would they be safe in those other neighborhoods? But then I relented. Why shouldn’t they have the same privilege of a summer bike ride with friends? With trepidation and a cellphone, I gave my son a taste of freedom.

Now on the verge of a second shutdown, we have new white neighbors. The wife is pregnant and their dog’s name is Milo. They, like the Shaws, will raise their family here, and I will keep looking out the window, watching and keeping my kids safe at home.

Novelist and author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting America (Sept. 2019)

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