Monday, July 21, 2014

The Unwelcoming Neighborhood

It was a long walk, but I like it that way.

I'd rather not have walked it, because it meant an indefinite separation from my ailing steed, sidelined after yet another fueling problem surfaced.  One issue with riding a bike hard and year round is that they age a little bit more rapidly, and my formerly trusty Suzuki is feeling its age.  But whatever the circumstance, the three point six miles did me good, and at a moderately brisk pace, it took a little under an hour.

When you walk, you see things you'd miss as you barrel by in your cage.  In a car, you're focusing on the road and/or the blabbering inputs of your infotainment suite.  On foot, your pace lets you note nuance.  It lets you observe, and linger over an interesting thing.  You can't linger in DC, idling over to the side of the road like it's Mayberry.  Stop or slow down around these parts, and you'll have some ute-driving schedule-maddened DC parent/lawyer and the entire soccer team they're transporting yelling at you to learn how to drive as they swerve wildly by your stopped car.

Walking lets you see things on a human scale, and process them on a human scale.

I was at about the three-quarter mark on my walk when I came across the signs.

There was a row of them, on every house on a whole block, one trim little home after another on the access road off of Columbia Pike.

Well, every house but one.

They were neatly printed up, the sort of lawn signs you get professionally done if you're a small business startup, or a politician running for office in a little town.  "Say No to Bethany House Shelter," they said, one after another.  There was an address--the one house without the sign, as it so happened, sitting isolated on the edge of the block.  And there was a date, just a couple of days away, when there'll be a public hearing about whatever it was.

Because I was walking, I stopped, and lingered and looked.  I took a picture or two.

Beyond the signs, the houses were all very similar, in the face that they presented to the world.  Well maintained and clean cars were in every driveway, and--unusually for this area--they were almost entirely of American manufacture.  The homes--humble, straightforward, and of late 50s construction--were all primly kept.  Gardens were tidy and neat and tastefully conservative.  Lawns were mowed and edged.  Flags were in evidence on many doorposts.  These are people who are are proud of their homes.

Here, on the one hand, a group of neighbors, exercising their solidarity with one another and engaging in civic discourse.

On the other, it stirred my curiosity about the thing they were rallying together to oppose.  The name whispered hints.  A homeless shelter, perhaps?  Or a group home for the mentally ill?

I continued on, and when I got home, I went online to see what it might be.  As it turned out, it was a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence and their children.  The shelter already exists, right there on the block in that house.  Those women and their children are already there.  But it is--according to the exhaustive plans and zoning approval schematics available online--conducting a modest expansion to open space for two to three more families.

Why there?  Why in that neighborhood?  Well, directly across the street lies the answer: the Mason District police station, with rows upon rows of police cars and dozens of officers just moments away.  If you care about protecting women and their children from violent abuse, that'd be just about the best place to do it.  Siting in this instance is a no-brainer.

But of course, that has an effect on property values.  And even though a small army of trained and armed law enforcement professionals is right there where you can see them, it's also the kind of thing that makes people anxious.  Mammon and anxiety go hand in hand, they do, and that's where this ultimately lies.

I do not doubt, when that hearing comes, that there'll be other reasons presented.  It will destroy the feel of the neighborhood, they'll say, though other little houses nearby have been massively expanded or completely replaced.  Or perhaps there'll be ad hominem arguments against management, subtle insinuations of profit-seeking or incompetence.  There often are, when people are up in arms about something.  And of course, what about the children!  The children!  Someone always has to say that, even when you're opposing something that's there to protect children.  It's everything and the kitchen sink, when you get to that place.

And I can understand that reaction, up to a point.  Homo sapiens sapiens is such a fiercely territorial primate.

But what I don't understand--can't, frankly--is being the sort of human person whose pride wouldn't include protecting women and children.

"In my neighborhood, there is a shelter where women and children can come and be safe.  We've got first responders across the street to help out.  And we pitch in, keeping our eye out to help those kids and women stay that way.  That's who we are here.  We're a place of refuge.  We're a place of safety."

So there, a row of signs that proudly say the opposite.  Those signs are visible, to every battered woman and every frightened child that comes to that house now, or that is sheltered in that house now.

"You are not welcome here."

I stopped, and I noted it, because that little community wanted me to notice it.  They mark the place, and the spirit of that part of the neighborhood.

When you put out a sign, you need to expect that people will read it, and listen to what it is you're saying about yourself.