A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece for AltDaily that described my family’s experiences on moving from Chick’s Beach to Park Place in Norfolk.
I love our street in the summertime. One of the apartment complexes near our house serves as the de facto meeting place for friends and neighbors, with grilled meats and the sweet sounds of Al Greene weaving through the neighborhood.
Confession number 1: I have never walked over to join in the festivities. Over the year I have become acquainted with a few of the regulars over there, but I feel like I need an invitation to join them. Instead I sit on my front porch reading a book and having a cigar, participant by proxy.
Whenever the weather cooperates you can often find me at the 38th Street Park playing with our two sons. We no longer get strange looks there, and the boys have made new friends. I used to feel the need to hover over Andrew and Will, but now I let them run around freely. I talk to the older kids and the adults, push throngs of kids on the tire swing, and watch the pick-up basketball games.
Confession number 2: I used to play pick-up games every weekend, but have never gotten up the nerve to join in with these games. Partly because I’m old, partly because I’m a short white guy and don’t want to be like the kid who was picked last in gym class.
Once when it was time to leave the park I called out to the kids and they ran right over, just like little angels, and fell right in line behind me. There was an older African-American lady sitting nearby and she called me over. “Your kids are so well-behaved, not like black kids,” she said to me. I was speechless. Should I say thank you? Defend her entire race to her? I had that old familiar outcast feeling again; it was us versus them, and our kids are well-behaved.
Confession number 3: My children are not well-behaved. They ran straight over because they were thirsty and I forgot to bring them a drink.
Because of the proximity to my office and a smaller than usual kindergarten class, our oldest son was transferred before the start of the school year to Larchmont Elementary. We were thrilled, as this school is without question one of the best in Norfolk, if not all of Hampton Roads. One day Andrew came home and told us that one of his classmates lived on 37th street, right behind us. When that same girl came to Andrew’s birthday party at our house I got to meet her dad, who told me that when his daughter told him that Andrew lived on 38th street he didn’t believe her.
Confession number 4: I have more of a sense of camaraderie with this dad than I do with all of the other Larchmont parents. I might look more Larchmont, but I feel more Park Place. At the end of the day, we go our way and they go theirs.
Much like any other neighborhood, ours is full of little quirks, both good and bad. But throughout the course of our year in Park Place there is one issue that has dominated: crime. As I mentioned in my previous article, before we bought the house on 38th we checked out the crime statistics, finding nothing really to give us pause. It turns out that living here–rather than looking in from the outside–can change your perspective. Since I work at ODU, I get the “timely alert” text messages whenever there is an issue on or near campus. Theft. Robbery. SHOOTING.
The main purpose of a parent and (if you’ll forgive my old-fashioned chauvinism) a husband is to keep your family safe. I have never lived in a neighborhood where there was a shooting, and this year we had two, one fatal. I had met Christopher Cummings shortly before he was murdered, and cannot overstate what a loss that was. That young man had great potential. Flash forward a few months and there is another shooting. I came home from work to an excited 4-year-old who got to see our house on the news, as they did the remote on the story from The District, with our house as the backdrop. Despite his enthusiasm, or maybe because of it, I was having an internal crisis. We have moved to a place where people get shot.
This second incident had pushed me over the edge. I attended safety presentations on campus, saw statistics that point out that this is no worse an issue here than at any other urban campus, and have been assured that campus crimes are crimes of convenience. I get all that, and for the most part I believe it. But I would prefer that such things happening to my kids are outside of the realm of possibility, and they aren’t. People are getting desperate, and desperate times require desperate measures. I think for the most part the city and the university have done a lot to address this issue close to campus; there are increased patrols, and the security presence has definitely increased. 99.9% of the time I feel completely safe, due in large part to my neighbors and our sense of community. The crimes that are happening are so often committed against students who are unaware and seem to be easier victims. I truly believe that if I were in danger my neighbors would come to my aid, as I know I would for them. When there is an incident we come out on our porches and talk about it. We are together.
Confession number 5: Sometimes I feel like it is us (the neighborhood) versus them (the transient students), and they have cash and iPods. As much as I have tried to engage my community, they have not tried at all. They scurry to their cars from their homes or buildings, hoping that my neighbors leave them alone, just like I used to do. Which reminds me…
Confession number 6: A few of the people I see a lot are, in fact, scary as hell. I’m not sure if they are crazy or pickled drunk, but I’m not waiting around on the sidewalk to find out. But there are only a couple of those, honestly.
All this leads to one essential question: in hindsight, would I do it all over again? Yes. For all the issues, I believe the future is bright for Park Place. Sometimes I take our dog on a walk down 35th street and I still marvel at the potential. The possibility of a YMCA or a Youth Center in the neighborhood, as well as a real grocery store close (sorry Bottom Dollar, you are not real) give me hope, as does an increasingly active civic league. The road may be bumpy, but the Harris family is glad to be on the ride.