If this is the urban frontier, he likes it just fine, thanks

picture-71Neighborhood decline on my left, gentrification on my right. It’s an oversimplification, but in many ways it sums up my Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Located between Hyde and Jackson squares, my house sits in the middle of two different worlds, one where property values are booming and signs of affluence are everywhere, the other where crime is on the rise and the police never seem to leave. Living in a sort of no man’s land between the two, I’m never sure which way my street is headed. If I take a right outside my door and walk a block, I find myself surrounded by the types of places middle-class professionals love. Coffeehouses and restaurants sit alongside a new video store catering to independent and foreign film fans, while on the weekend crowds of hungry twentysomethings wait for brunch outside Sorella’s cafe. Students on bicycles speed by women pushing baby strollers down the clean, landscaped streets.

But when I turn left outside my door and join the line of people shuffling toward the Jackson Square T stop, the scene is different. Storefronts look shabby, trash litters the sidewalk, and the Bromley-Heath housing development looms over Centre Street. An officer from the Boston Housing police sits stationed in her cruiser outside Bromley, and a giant MBTA police command post vehicle stares down at me as I proceed into the subway station, a reminder of the violent crime this area has become known for.

Heading to work one morning I notice what looks like a gang tag spray-painted on a stop sign. The next day I find a syringe in my backyard, and I become convinced that my street has begun sliding into a long, slow, crime-fueled decline. But then I get a coupon advertising a $13.50 spinach-and-feta pizza from the new restaurant up the street, or see young couples working in the community garden on our corner, and I feel confident again about my decision to move to this neighborhood.

My neighbors aren’t warm and fuzzy types, but they look out for me, and they seem to have accepted that a gay white guy is now part of the neighborhood. I suspect some of them struggle to make ends meet, and I often wonder how they feel about what is happening around us. Do they fear the wave of crime to our left, and wait for the effects of gentrification to begin drifting our way? Or do they see the new restaurants and cafes springing up to our right as the beginning of a process that will make them strangers on their own street and price them out of their homes? As a newcomer to the neighborhood, I sometimes wonder what role I play in this.

The irony is that I feel better walking through my neighborhood than I do reading about it. Sure, the woman on the corner one day nearly hit me in the head with a piece of firewood she had hurled at a guy running from her house. And yes, sometimes I feared that I’d get jumped by the group of kids lurking on the corner. But during my two years in Jamaica Plain, I’ve never been the victim of a crime. It’s when I pick up the newspaper or turn on the radio that I get paranoid. It’s then that I learn about the 10 a.m. shooting at Bromley, or the postal service refusing to deliver mail to our neighborhood, or the stabbing at Jackson Square. It’s after looking through the police report in our community paper that I log onto Mapquest, typing in the address of the latest mugging to see how far it was from my house.

The people who tell me how brave I am to be living in a “transitional” neighborhood are the same ones who tell me things are improving and I soon won’t recognize my street. Their insinuation is obvious and ugly: My neighborhood will change when the poor people move, when the housing project closes, when the dam breaks and the tide of gentrification washes all the way down Centre Street and onto Columbus Avenue.

But I’ve grown to love my street for what it is, and I don’t really want it to change. Too close to the crime and uncertainty of Jackson Square to become another McGentrified Boston neighborhood, yet far enough from it that parents still send their children outside to play, my street is an unpretentious, easy place to live, with an interesting, diverse mix of people.

But as economic and social forces continue to grind on both sides of my little street, I fear that this delicate equilibrium is in danger. My street is bound to be swallowed up by one side or the other, and which way it will go is anyone’s guess.

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