I am sitting on my neighbor’s porch, drinking a beer and watching the warm spring evening unfold.
On days like this it all makes sense again, why I live here on the east side of Parkridge. Across the street my other neighbor teaches his nephew to ride a scooter, his arms hovering around him all the way down the block. They wobble past the young professional woman out in her yard for the first time in months, mowing the grass. Even the old man with the drug addiction, the Boo Radley of the block, is standing outside in the warm breeze. Someone is blasting contemporary R&B and little kids are eating ice cream out of the carton, each with their own spoon.
“Mmm. Chocolate and vanilla,” an 8-year-old says, licking his spoon and digging in. And that’s all he says for a long time.
Another kid is tooling around on his skateboard, a 6-year-old version of the teenager I used to watch playing with his skateboard on this same sidewalk, before he got shot in the face.
The cops say it is not our imagination. The past few months have seen a marked increase in armed home invasions, drive-by shootings, and murders, mostly in East Knoxville. In the violence, one pattern has emerged.
In November a 17-year-old was shot from a passing car while he was walking along the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. In March the same story happened again—a 17-year-old boy, gunned down on Woodbine Avenue from a passing car. He ran from door to door begging for help. The first kid lived, the second died.
On April 2, during remarks at a Parkridge community meeting, Officer Chris Hutton spoke about the rise of gang activity in East Knoxville. Hutton said the demolition of parts of Walter P. Taylor Homes has displaced gang members into another gang’s territory. There had been six shootings in four days. One was of a kid wearing red, he said, in an area where you should only wear blue.
After the meeting that night, another young man, a resident of Woodbine, was shot in the back from a passing car in another part of East Knoxville.
“They won’t be shooting our kids,” Officer Hutton assured the group at the community meeting.
If by “our” he meant only the group of middle-class white people in attendance, he may be right. It may be reassuring, when crouching on the floor with your kids while shots are fired in the street, to remember you are likely only to be hit by a stray, accidental bullet.
But if I want to truly take ownership of my neighborhood, if I want to be block captain, I have to admit there is no us and them. I live on Woodbine. They already are shooting our kids. Sometimes, it’s our Parkridge young men shooting other Parkridge young men. It’s a mind-boggling paradox: hard to choose sides, and hard not to.
“It’s okay for you, you have girls,” a neighbor with teenage boys told me just before she got out, “This neighborhood is no good for boys.”
We wanted our own house, one that could be really ours, and found the one we could afford here. We found a warm and welcoming community. Our neighbors invite our children over to play. They loan us tools and share their food and celebrations. We belong here.
We can get away with stuff here that makes a neighborhood exciting and alive. Like the time we blocked off the road so neighborhood children could have a bike parade, no one called the cops. That evening, we didn’t call the cops, either, when two grown men raced four-wheelers down the street, circling each other on two wheels. When shots were fired on Polk Street the night the old Industrial Belting and Supply building in the Old City burned down, we did call the cops. We called and called, and no one ever came.
The new neighbor is sitting quietly on her front porch. She doesn’t know anybody yet. I should bring her muffins and a note, “Welcome to the neighborhood.” I am an adult, after all, I need to own this place where I live.
The kids on the steps are bouncing to the music. Another girl comes out of the house with her ice-cream spoon.
“I don’t listen to this stuff. I only listen to rap,” the 8-year-old tells me.
“Me too! Rap, and church,” his friend says.
“Want some ice cream?”
“I’m good,” says the little one on the skateboard, “I don’t want to get a brain freeze.”
It’s getting dark.
I say good-bye to the kids and Lil’ Wayne (the cat), squeeze my empty beer can, and stroll across the street for home.
It’s a family block. Before 9 o’clock it’ll be quiet.