Pondering the Hood

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but since moving into Seattle proper almost two years ago, I'm still not deeply familiar with the local neighborhood. Sure, I walk to places like the bank and the post office with the blasé stroll of someone who knows where he's going and who is familiar with the quirks of getting around as a pedestrian. I know which backroads to take when traffic or construction make normal routes a mess; I know which streets are narrow, which corners are blind, and where puddles, mud pits, and potholes are going to appear. I have at least a first-name acquaintance with the immediate neighbors and nodding acquaintance with many more; folks I recognize say hello when I'm out working on the yard or fussing with something outside. I have a working knowledge of local businesses and know a bit about the community's history, community, and future plans.

But I still consider myself a stranger here. I think part of my feeling stems from the sheer density of the area compared to where I grew up and most places I've lived before. This area wouldn't be considered one of Seattle's more-crowded neighborhoods—far from it—but it's large enough, crowded enough, and has a high enough turnover of residents that with the exception on long-time citizens and folks who can regularly be seen in public roles in businesses or as community activists, the working assumption is that everyone you see will be someone you've never met before. It's a neighborhood of strangers.

This manifests itself in weird ways—like litter. The house is on a street which is a walking route between a large grocery store on a main thoroughfare (with bus stops) and a local park with a nearby youth center. Kids, teenagers, and young adults regularly amble up and down the street, going to the store, going to the park, going to the youth center, or just heading for a bus stop. Some of these kids go by daily, to and from school—they'll often say hello. Others I've never seen before, and the number of candy wrappers, candy boxes, plastic bags, cigarette butts, checkstand receipts, napkins, and half-finished sodas (cans and bottles) I find strewn along the sidewalk and in the yard is a testament to their anonymity. In the winter, persistent rain quickly turns most of the paper products to barely-recognizable slime which is jus a delight to clean up; in the summer, I'm out almost every morning collecting detritus from the previous day's passersby.

Sometimes we get something unusual: a handwritten grocery list, a half-finished beer, chicken bones, a dozen catsup packs—one time an antique, empty five-gallon gas can turned up. On a few occasions I've found toddlers' clothing (presumably fallen from a stroller or parent's pack: several adults with strollers go up and down the sidewalk everyday); last night, a grocery cart from the local grocery store turned up on at the bottom of the front steps.

Lost items are one thing—if it's not raining, I fold up the kids' clothing and set it out on a retaining wall next to the sidewalk, hoping maybe the folks will come back along and reclaim it. (One set of sweatpants was picked up the next day—the people left a nice note. So far no other items have been claimed.) But it irks me that some people feel casually throw litter, abandon shopping carts, and toss their trash on the sidewalk and yard where I live. I doubt they'd do the same thing at their own homes. What makes it "OK" to do at my house is that they believe—apparently correctly—they'll never be recognized or held accountable. Someone else (namely, me) will be along to clean up after them, and they'll never have to expend an instant's thought about the incident ever again.

It bugs me. When I was a kid, sure, we got up to our share of no good in the neighborhood. But random littering? No.

There are also petty acts of vandalism. A strip of yard next to the sidewalk below a retaining wall has been planted with sedum and other hardy plants; some of these were in ceramic pots embedded in the soil, making for easy replanting. One day last summer I went out to find someone had pulled out all the plants in the glazed ceramic pots, tossed them into the yard and street, and taken the pots. It was likely someone scrounging for money—maybe they could be sold to a thrift store for 50 cents—but…dangit, theft is theft. Someone stole a quart of motor oil and a garden spade from the garage out back. There's no lock (or door!) on the garage, so it's not exactly secure, but the thief wuld have had to have gone to the back of the garage worked their way around my car to find these things tucked out of sight in a corner.

And let's not forget the drunks I've caught pouring out malt liquor in the bushes, or strolling around to the back yard to urinate against the fence or in the blackberry. (There's a wasps' nest back there in the summer; maybe this year one of them will get a surprise.) These folks don't seem to be from the local "Tent City" homeless encampment recently set up at a nearby church: I see those folks walking to and from the park almost every day, but they don't seem to cause any problems. In fact, every other week they routinely rummage through everyone's recycling for aluminum cans they can take and sell—but as these folks go along the street, they pick up litter and deposit it in garbage containers set out for collection. They might be scrounging through stinky recycling bins, but at least they're making a positive difference as they go.

So far, we're been spared graffiti tagging, although that's not been true of our neighbors. But there's the persistent missing mail. Bank statements which never arrive; communications from insurance providers, credit card companies, and clients which mysteriously never turn up. The post office has refused to let me move the mail box up off the sidewalk, instead insisting the only solution is a locking mailbox. Judging from the dents in the existing mailbox, I'm guessing a new one would get "antiqued" fairly quickly by local bat-wielders. Great.

Maybe I'm just not cut out for city living. Or maybe I just need a spot with fewer random passerby, where people know and respect each other.

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