Summer is near. You can feel it, especially on the weekends. Fresh cut grass, charcoal grills, neighbors out and about, music playing, laughter in the alleys, sun on your skin. It’s that time of year where good neighboring gets a little easier and a little harder, all at the same time. Easier because the long winter hibernation is through, and we’re back to sitting on stoops and benches, chatting with each other. Harder because with the sitting on stoops and benches comes noise at all hours. The laughter and arguments and parties that were once contained in houses now move to the porches and sidewalks and alleys.
There is this narrative in our city about “nuisance properties.” We spend hours at neighborhood meetings discussing how exactly to report these properties. Call the police, give the address, call your alderman, give specifics, take notes. They’ll put pressure on the landlord, who will put pressure on the tenants, who will then change their ways or be forced to move.
At a recent meeting, someone was sharing that this model really works! After a family is forced to move three times, they actually begin to change how they live. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem like a success story.
One of my favorite childhood books was Ramona Quimby, Age 8. One day, Ramona goes to school with a hardboiled egg in her lunchbox. Lunchtime arrives and she decides to crack the egg on her forehead, only to realize the egg was raw. Later she overhears a teacher call her a nuisance. Ramona was quite upset; she felt so powerless and misunderstood.
I wonder how the people who represent these “nuisance properties” feel after the third time they’re uprooted. Perhaps they feel powerless and misunderstood. I can’t imagine they feel empowered or valued as people.
To be honest, I’m not sure how to change the narrative. Knowing our neighbors would be a good first step. Example: Ronald (age 12) and his cousin were going crazy with some firecrackers. In a neighborhood where gunshots are too common for my comfort, this puts me on edge. So I sweetly call down from my window and ask the boys to stop, for fear of a heart attack. In unison, the boys respond, “Sorry Miss Sara!” I guess you could technically call firecrackers a nuisance. But I didn’t need to call the police because I know Ronald, and he knows me.
Maybe we could redefine what is considered a nuisance. No, you shouldn’t have to live next door to a drug dealer. You go ahead and call the police if that’s happening. But that overgrown lawn? Maybe your neighbor doesn’t have an extra penny to fix the lawnmower. I wonder what you’d learn about your neighbor if you chatted over a glass of lemonade. Maybe you could mow the lawn and she could help pick up the alley.
I understand that we need a process for reporting neighborhood troubles, I'm not asking that we ignore them. I guess what I want to see is more relationship focused problem solving, more conversations about how to walk with our struggling neighbors, and more patience with our friends who are trying to figure it all out.