A Sidewalk Story, Or How A Fight Over A Patch of Ground Changed The Neighborhood

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Jul 4, 2011 in LIfe, Politics | 0 comments

The contested sidewalk today ...

My neighborhood has been undergoing some changes lately, which puts me in mind of an incident that occurred a few years ago that was certainly a harbinger of that change, if not the moment of its ushering in.

I should tell you first about a fellow who lived three doors down, whose house I walked past each morning on my way to work. He was a retired gardener—a fact I didn’t learn from him; he never spoke to me or even acknowledged my existence. He exuded an aura of curmudgeonliness, hard-won and carefully cultivated. I learned about his past from another more talkative neighbor. Anyway it made sense. The retired gardener kept a meticulously neat garden in his little patch of front yard: a quince tree (we only lost it when the tornado came through Brooklyn last fall), a lawn he kept trimmed with a hand-push mower, and several bushes lining the low fence, which he cut in topiary shapes. It was the topiary touch that really gave him away as a gardener. Curmudgeon he may have been, but it’s hard to hold a grievance against someone who keeps a garden the way he did.

At a certain point a new neighbor moved into my building. He was a big fellow with a square head, and like our neighbor down the street not what you’d call a friendly person. When he was having trouble getting cable installed, he greeted a suggestion I made with one of those stony stares that makes you quite certain that even if his feet were on fire you wouldn’t loan him a glass of water. I filed him away in that cabinet marked ‘inconsequential’ and went about my business, though I might’ve noticed a few weeks later that he had gotten himself a dog, a German Shepherd, if I remember rightly, with mournful woebegone eyes.

Meanwhile the neighbor down the street was beginning to behave in a slightly more eccentric fashion. For a couple of weeks as I passed his house on the way to work, I’d see him sprinkling water out of a can onto the sidewalk in front of his property. I remember thinking this was a bit much. Though he from time to time rinsed the walk with a garden hose, this latest move looked like preparation to give his sidewalk a daily scrub—well, the fellow’s proclivity for neatness was becoming a mania. This went on, as I said, for two weeks, until one morning as I walked by his place, he spoke to me for the first time. “Do you know the fellow in your building with the dog?” Now I’ve lived in New York long enough to avoid even the most benign guilt-by-association gambit. Plus I didn’t much care for my co-tenant. So I quickly denied any but a passing knowledge of him—pretty much the truth anyway. I think that’s all that was said; at least it’s all I remember. I walked away more puzzled than ever.

It wasn’t until a few days later that the mystery was cleared up. I was talking to my gregarious neighbor, an interesting guy in his own right: he worked on cars parked in the street and did odd jobs around the neighborhood. But he also rented a tiny storefront around the corner where he had set up an impromptu art gallery for his paintings. Though I more than once stopped to look at these efforts in the dusty display window, I can’t now summon them up, try as I might. I do remember them having great sincerity. But the gallery had few visitors. I remember going outside one summer night and finding him standing on the sidewalk, his eyes shining. A mockingbird was delivering an endless series of whoops and whistles from a light pole just down the street. “A nightingale,” he said “I could just sit here and listen all night.” It was he who enlightened me about my neighbor’s mysterious question. My co-tenant had been walking his dog to the sidewalk in front of the retired gardener’s house where the dog would urinate, much to the retired gardener’s outrage. To put an end to what he saw as this gross violation, he began sprinkling a mixture of pepper and water on the sidewalk in front of his place.

This might have been the end of the story—the dog of the mournful countenance might simply have found a new place to water his surroundings, except that somehow my apartment building mate realized what the old fellow was doing. He threatened to call the police—or perhaps he did. It wasn’t entirely clear. But this I do know: the retired gardener was worried. His question to me—and breaking his vow of silence must have cost him—was meant to gather intelligence and perhaps ward off the danger he saw marching toward him. The exact details of the final act in the drama are veiled to me. I could only see the results: end of pepper water; more or less disappearance of both parties from view. The little stage there at the end of the block, a patch of uneven Brooklyn sidewalk, had been entirely abandoned, or so it seemed, by the principals in the drama.

One way of looking at this neighborhood vignette is as a minor comedy about foolishly feuding neighbors. Part of me saw it in exactly that way. But I also know there’s a falseness to that enchantment. The retired gardener was an African-American man who had lived on the block for years when the block’s residents were almost all African-Americans. The man with the German Shepherd was white, a recent arrival at what might have been the inflection point for the neighborhood’s “gentrification.” (When my wife and I—both white—moved in several years before this episode, we could tell ourselves we were just living in a diverse neighborhood, our preference, and perhaps even feel good about that; it was easy to pretend we were not part of the gentrifying process. Though of course we were simply an earlier phase of it.)

The trouble with stories is that you never know for sure what they mean, or what they hide. Perhaps the War of the Sidewalk really was just a story about characters in the neighborhood and no more. But I have my suspicions that what happened on the block is another story altogether. For if I think about it, my (white) co-tenant never did seem comfortable in his new surroundings, so much so that at the time I remember vaguely thinking that he had gotten the dog to reduce this discomfort—that he had bought the dog of the woebegone eyes as protection. He then got into a conflict with an irascible (black) neighbor and then (at least) threatened to call the police.

Perhaps he had no awareness how threatening this move would be to our neighbor. Our neighbor, rightly or wrongly—and this argument is one that still ripples with uncomfortable regularity across our society from sea to shining sea—sensed where the weight of the law would finally settle. Perhaps he even sensed that he was at least partly objectively in the wrong, but his deeper fear, and I’m quite sure it was fear he was feeling, lay in his belief that the police called in by the white man down the street would finally be an instrument of white power. And so there he was: an old man feeling powerless and stewing in his juices. Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that it was likely no picnic for my dog-owning neighbor either. If his fears were of the kind I think they were—admittedly I’m speculating—then he no doubt had to live with his own (certainly biased) fears of retaliation. I suspect his moving away from the neighborhood soon after had everything to do with this.

As for the old man, perhaps it was only a coincidence, but a few weeks later he suffered a health setback, perhaps a stroke. He managed to hang onto the house for a time, but soon moved out. The talkative neighbor said he went to assisted-living in the Bronx. The house was soon sold, remodeled from top to bottom, and a young family of professionals moved in. The topiary bushes were removed. The quince tree, as I mentioned, was uprooted in the tornado a year later.

Many changes have followed. The non-registered halal butcher shop around the corner on Washington Avenue where some guys were selling goat meat out of iced-down coolers has been replaced by a high-end cake shop. On the corner of Washington, the rather curious and obviously quixotic enterprise run by a guy who was trying to create some kind of local alternative to Mailboxes, Etc. has been replaced by an antique boutique. Gone too is my nightingale listening friend—his art gallery first shuttered, then converted into a yoga studio, now vacant. The neighborhood has not lost all of its diversity—this is Brooklyn after all. But it’s lost something amid the proliferation of Thai and Sushi restaurants, what used to be called Internet cafés, and actually trendy bars. There are now some days in the neighborhood when the number of hipsters per square foot is approaching the density at which nuclear combustion occurs.

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