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A walk through my neighborhood

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Opinions


Note: To protect the privacy of my neighbors, I have changed the names of all streets, towns and businesses. Everything else is only as true as my memories.

The house at 4 Cherry Rd. is a faded, ruddy salmon, a rather homely color. When I first saw the house, I worried that it would be an easy target for my friends—no seventh-grade boy wants to live in “the pink house,” particularly not while he tries to acclimate to a different neighborhood in different state.

I moved to Redgrove, Conn., in late summer. Six weeks later, I stared in stunned silence at the television screen in my math classroom as the Twin Towers collapsed. Along with a new school, a new community and a new millennium, I now had to contend with a new geopolitical order—one that would deepen the alienation I already felt from my classmates. As we strove to make sense of the attacks in the next day’s social studies class, I remember wanting to mention the impoverished state of the Middle East and suggest that the United States may not be blameless in inviting such hatred; hearing the justifiable anger and surging patriotism of the class, I wisely held my tongue.

As I walk out my front door and across my sloping lawn, I turn left on Cherry Road. There is no reason to turn right; the road ends in a sweeping cul-de-sac. A hallmark of suburban security, the dead end protected our after-school kickball games and let our cats roam free. We almost never saw unfamiliar cars or people walking near our house; when we did, it was usually cause for caution. The only black family I knew in Redgrove lived several houses down from us; they moved away soon after their son, who often played basketball with us, got expelled for bringing a BB gun to school.

Cherry Road soon becomes Birch Street, and a shallow right opens onto East State Street, Highway 54. Turn left and travel far enough and you reach Gulfwood, which means either the opulent houses of the hills or the low-income apartments across the river. Horror stories of the projects wafted through the halls of my middle school: gangs ran rampant, murders were common, my best friend’s father had his tires slashed. Continue right, and you eventually pass a run-down auto shop. A row of rusty pumps sit in front, unused; until the recent surge, the tall sign still stuck on over $4 per gallon dated the station as a victim of the 2008 energy crisis. My mother filled almost every tank there when we first moved to Connecticut; the attendant was friendly and always made small talk. One day, he mentioned that he avoided conversation with black patrons. We never stopped at the station again.

Farther down the road, a beautiful wooden building houses Donneville Ice Cream. Established shortly after I moved, the creamery co-opted the property of a hundred-year-old inn. Several years ago, it was bought out by a family of Albanian immigrants on the strength of the profits from their pizza restaurant several towns away. My mother and grandmother eat there every Friday; the staff knows us well and greets me warmly every time I go. Sam’s Deli stands on a cross-street a block away from Donneville, and the contrast with the antique inn is marked; the paint is chipped, the sign is faded and trees grow unchecked in the back yard. In high school, my friends and I would visit Sam’s Deli after every sleepover and the proprietors would prepare our standard order as soon as they saw us arrive. We’d always get a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and a can of Arizona ice tea. The total cost was only $3; we called it “the breakfast of champions,” more a nod to Vonnegut than to the Wheaties box. The family that owns Sam’s Deli moved from Vietnam, and three generations live in the upstairs apartment and run the store. I’d occasionally hear my classmates mocking the overgrown foliage in the back, calling it “Little Saigon.”

East State Street eventually leads to Redgrove’s tiny downtown, passing under a rusted iron bridge that carries Metro trains into New York City. A vacant, gutted building on the right housed John Child’s antique shop, until a fire shut it down two years ago. Child was also a real estate agent, and he sold us our house when we moved. He and his son, who was one grade behind me at Redgrove Middle School, were the only Jews I knew in the town. John was active in the town Democratic Party, and the joke around the school during his unsuccessful run for First Selectman in 2009 was that his goal was “to steal Christmas.”

This was the cultural milieu in which I spent my teen years, and these social dynamics built my understanding of inter-ethnic relations and small-town America. You might say I was an East-Coast-university-educated liberal elitist in training; having not spent my childhood in Redgrove, I was free of any romantic idealization of the town and could judge it with the dispassion of an outsider. After two years at the public middle school, I happily left for a private high school, severing almost all my ties with my former classmates. And why shouldn’t I? I heard the veiled racism and saw the lack of diversity, and I’m proud that I reacted so strongly against them.

But reality is seldom so cut-and-dried, and a middle-schooler armed with the stereotypes of vapid suburbia can be a dangerous thing. Yes, there were insidious undercurrents of discrimination, and it was probably for the best that I found my true home outside of my actual hometown. But 2012 is not 1950, and my neighbors are not the close-minded rednecks I once imagined. John Child didn’t lose the election because he was Jewish; he lost because he was a Democrat, and that’s what happens to Democrats in Redgrove. Sam’s Deli still teems with “the regulars,” our name for the older, uniformly white men who sit at the counter every day with coffee and the paper. They just want food at a reasonable price and good conversation, and they don’t care if it comes with a thick foreign accent. Donneville’s walls are decorated with photos of the state champion Redgrove Middle School softball team, thanking them for their generous sponsorship; families and teenagers flock to it every hot summer day. I may have heard the occasional unsavory comment—but anecdotes are not data, and the data suggest that Redgrove is open for everyone’s business.

As I walk down East State back home, I once again pass the weathered gas station sign, its failed business contrasting with the burgeoning downtown. Maybe my initial conjecture was right, and the high cost of gas was what drove it into the ground. But maybe the manager just spewed his vile invective at one too many conscientious consumer, and his business paid the ultimate price for it. The world is changing quickly these days, and everyone—even the suburban, white conservative—is changing with it.