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Atticus was right

Only a few weeks since the debut of CrazyStable, and I stumble upon a novel phenomenon: Blog Lag Guilt (BLG), the shame and anxiety experienced when one has noisily announced one’s personal online ruminations and then neglected to update them for a while. Freelance assignments with preposterous deadlines take the blame for this early episode of BLG, but it’s not too late to recount the week’s most astounding Flatbush event: a one-time-only, live, professional, performance of a dramatized version of To Kill a Mockingbird, staged on the adjacent porches of some of our rambling “Victorian” homes on nearby Westminster Road. Although I couldn’t attend, the Spouse did, and reported (still teary-eyed, bless him) that it had been incredible, in the good sense. (I had suspected the entire affair would be more akin to the Monty Python “ladies” enacting historic battles on the village green. I was also peeved that we couldn’t have participated as Boo Radley’s house, for which the Stable would be a dead ringer.)

Of course, there is an easy irony in performing Mockingbird in what we tirelessly point out is Brooklyn’s most diverse census tract. Behold us enlightened arts lovers and neighbors of every race, swooning over a seminal depiction of social justice in American popular culture…right on our own front porches! But the true connoisseur of irony eschews the “easy” kind, and when it comes to the realities of a multiracial neighborhood, ours has always provided a fine mix of more complex and obscure ironies. The lived reality of “diversity,” in our experience, diverges from the cinematic canon of tales of injustice or uplift: both more mystical and more mundane, at once ordinary and surreal. Our stories of black and white are better suited to weird graphic novels than Harper Lee, much less Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Our Diversity Journey started with house-hunting itself precisely 20 years ago. It would’ve made a lovely headline for the New York Times’ Real Estate Section: “White Couple Finds Racial Steering isn’t Just for Blacks.” Yes, we were steered away from any racially mixed neighborhood by every ratbag Park Slope realtor we met. We hadn’t requested this service, and apparently we didn’t have to. But there was just one problem: No predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn contained a house we could afford, not even a shell. So our pathetic little index cards were presumably “steered” into their wastepaper baskets. We would register, humbly assert our willingness to view fixer-uppers, and hear…nothing, except strained demurrals that “in your price range, you’re not gonna see much.”

Silly wabbits! It took us ages to figure out that, while the tabloids’ gritty real-estate classifieds listed many houses under our drop-dead barrier of $180,000, none of “our” real-estate agents were showing us any. Presumably they sat in their smoky, fly-specked storefronts, breaking into maniacal derisive laughter at the pale, clueless young couple who couldn’t afford to be white. We started waving clipped ads for affordable houses beyond the yuppie pale (so to speak), and noted their altered visage. Subtlety was not their strong suit; neither was eloquence. “That’s, ah, probably not an area you’d be interested in, ya know?” was a typical comment. Our favorite “coded” message was this apologia from a broker for what he deemed a marginal area with a mere sprinkling of offensive demographics (Kensington, perhaps?): “Ya got yer element in this neighborhood, but it’s spasmodic.” We treasure the image of homeboys and Crips falling out of doorways in tonic-clonic convulsions.

We finally got somewhere after staring the ratbag brokers in the eye and demanding, “START SHOWING US HOUSES IN INTEGRATED NEIGHBORHOODS. WE ARE OKAY WITH THAT.” Ah, well! In that case, madame, come see our back room! So began the house hunt described in the Bad Beginning, and thus we wound up settling in this leafy precinct of globe-spanning diversity and porchfront dramaturgy. It is indeed a “black neighborhood” at first glance (and a “black neighborhood” immutably in the minds of my mother and many now-erstwhile friends), but in reality it is a patchwork of well-off white liberals in landmark enclaves, Caribbean immigrants of widely varying ethnic stock, Chinese apartment-dwellers, Cambodian refugees, Hispanic working-class folks, and elderly Jews too stubborn or principled to catch a white flight to the suburbs back in the Seventies. (A nearby commercial strip adds the grouchy charm of Arab and Hasidic Jewish merchants selling their wares virtually side by side; where the F train emerges onto the elevated line, a day-care center run by a mosque sits next door to one run by an Orthodox temple. Still some cheap irony left.)

It is notable that we did not seek this neighborhood out of a giddy Bohemian white-folks desire to stroll down the street humming “It’s a Small World After All.” We looked first in familiar neighborhoods because we felt safe there, and because the commercial strips provided goods and services in our cultural comfort zone. (A butcher store that advertises “cow cod” and a fish store with “parrot fish and jacks” and a deli with “doubles and bakes” made for an intimidating market day, at least in the era before search engines.) But when we discovered that the premium for a neighborhood of white faces and walking distance to sun-dried tomatoes (one a surrogate marker for the other) was an extra $100,000 in 1986 dollars, it seemed an absurd reason to despair of ever becoming homeowners. We got a house with a garage and a driveway, so we could keep the car and drive 10 minutes to get sun-dried tomatoes. And we got Haitian and Trinidadian next-door neighbors who would have given us the proverbial shirt off their backs if we'd needed it.

Our neighbors welcomed us, or at least were kind enough to pretend to do so, long after we proved a washout as property-value-raising white gentrifiers. As our inability to lift the CrazyStable out of its “eyesore” status became evident, many seemed to grow downright solicitous, as if we were joining a fraternity where survival sometimes has to make do instead of progress, and avoiding foreclosure can seem as sure a victory as renovation. Since any of our non-Caucasian or even Jewish neighbors would have been detested in the lily-white suburb where I grew up back in the Sixties, (that would be Little Neck, Queens), this remains for me a touching act of historical reparation, a sort of community-wide, unspoken Atticus Finching. We have reaped what we did not sow.

Stay tuned to learn about how racial cross-currents have swept around the CrazyStable spasmodically ever since…often in ways more akin to Monty Python than Maycomb County, Alabama.

Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.
Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2005 at 04:58PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

Thank you for your lovely story. You articulated many of my own sentiments beautifully and with refreshing honesty. I am the producing artistic director of Brave New World Rep and I directed and conceived of the production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

October 15, 2005 at 12:23AM | Unregistered CommenterClaire Beckman

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