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No Way Out 

A Neighborhood Reclaimed

It's always been my goal to so fine tune my sense of where the next hot neighborhood would be that I'd buy before the gay men discovered it, moved in and cleaned the place up. Well, last week it happened. Two men placed a bid on a house near mine high enough to make my head spin. It was a clear sign that our little patch of earth has arrived.

The last time two men came to look at a house on my lower-end Plaza Midwood street a year ago, the house's owner and I sat on my porch across the street, holding our breaths, praying that the fight over some no-good man that had been brewing between two women from competing drug houses down the street wouldn't spill over into the road. As the real estate agent and her clients pulled out of the driveway, they were greeted by the sight of two middle-aged women wailing on each other in a street brawl, one of them clutching a freshly torn out fist-full of the other's hair and tearing at another clump that just wouldn't give. The other woman clawed at and slapped her bleeding face.

I never saw the real estate agent or the men again. Apparently, they couldn't hack the "diversity" they were seeking in all its full glory. In my world, a street brawl doesn't register as noteworthy until at least a half-pint of blood is spilled. What they saw that day was just your basic dispute resolution. When you've had a life as hard as some of these people, sometimes what you really need is to knock someone's block off and have your own knocked off in return.

Seven years ago, this would have made no sense to me. When I started renovating houses in a neighborhood most of my peers would be scared to drive through, my income from my regular job was only in the teens, so once I closed on a house, I had no choice but to be part of the neighborhood and do the work myself. In the process, I gave myself something in common with my neighbors without intending to -- no way out, at least until I finished the house and sold it.

Given my job, I bump into a lot of people who are trying to "help" the poor and "fix" these neighborhoods, but have never actually lived in them with no way out. They like to tell you how it is. They crack me up. If there's one group of people no one gets, it's the poor.

Basically, "poor" isn't a group of people, but a culture. It works the same in every neighborhood. You've got the stereotypical poor -- the elderly, the disabled, the homeless and single mothers, working multiple jobs and struggling to make it. Then you've got the rest of the "poor," those who'd rather prey on the aforementioned group than seek gainful employment.

The most destructive force in these neighborhoods is government-sponsored Section 8 housing. Section 8 landlords are often so grossly overpaid by the government that they'll ignore far more than your average slumlord, which is why this housing is so popular with drug dealers. Note that the tenants who receive Section 8 vouchers, often single mothers, are almost never the problem. But put an emotionally and financially vulnerable woman in a rough neighborhood where gunshots regularly ring out and she's going to want a man -- any man -- in the house. It's usually less than two weeks before a cousin, uncle or boyfriend moves in; and often those men start dealing drugs.

As the word spreads, the house draws carloads of every form of human trash. Pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, pedophiles, rapists and small-time thugs come and go at all hours of the day and night, taking in the scenery and scoping out the possibilities. The kids of hard-working mothers who mean well but can't afford daycare are sitting ducks for these people. Stuff happens. Sometimes she's too scared to report it to the police. Most of the time, there's no proof, anyway. Women get raped by acquaintances, then change their stories before the police can seriously investigate. Older men passing through prey on girls who've never had a father. Homeless men I once pitied rape and beat up homeless women.

There are, of course, the miracles. The kid whose parents don't care who inexplicably makes straight A's in school. The drug house the police finally bust up after months of effort. The folks who better themselves and move up and out.

This is my last rough neighborhood, and it's not so rough anymore. The few remaining drug houses are gone. The slumlord that once owned much of it is broke. And the good people who lived through it all will soon be able to sell their houses for a nice chunk of change, or if they stay, to feel truly safe.

I'll be free to go soon, too, but I'm not in the hurry I was seven years ago. I've pulled for this patch of earth for over two years, and I want to be there when it's reclaimed.

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