Hillman City Rhapsody: Homelessness, Hope and Gentrification

by Marilee Jolin

If you spend much time on Rainier Avenue between Brandon St and Mead, you’ve probably seen my friend Joe.  He’s out on the sidewalk, most every day, carefully sweeping up leaves and acorns dropped by the huge oaks on our stretch of Rainier Ave.  It warms my heart each time I see him out there with his busted-up old broom, keeping the sidewalks clear for all the walkers, showing such respect for this little neighborhood and its inhabitants; like he’s caring for the streets, the trees and the pedestrians all at once – in one big, plastic-bristled swoop.

9 months ago, when I started working at The Hillman City Collaboratory I was fortunate to meet Joe in person.  He’d stop in to say hello and I was immediately drawn to his kind face and gentle, joking demeanor, though it took me awhile to understand his unique way of saying hello.  If you ask Joe how he is, don’t expect “great” or “good” or even “terrible”.  He is never any of these.  What he always is, is glad to be alive.  He’ll shake his head with a wry grin, sending his stocking cap slightly askew and mutter, “Still above the ground…still above the ground.”

Every time he says it, I think of two things.  First, Joe is not young.  I’d guess he is at least 70 and could be closer to 80.  I suspect there is less sarcasm than genuine gratitude in this phrase.  Second, Joe works in the embalming room at Dayspring and Fitch funeral home just up Rainier.  He is much more intimately acquainted with death than I ever hope to be.  He has often spoken to me of the pain of “laying out too many young men to be buried” with tears in his eyes.  And yet, he takes that experience – that pain and sorrow – and turns it into laughter.

Perhaps it’s this levity, mixed with a deeply grounded wisdom, that I appreciate so much in Joe.  Perhaps it’s his willingness to tell me stories of how things used to be and not mince words about how they should be.  Perhaps it’s his musical gifts: the freedom with which he sits down at the piano and fills the room with gorgeous old jazz standards, always starting with “My Way”.

And, while all these things contribute, it is the differences between us that make Joe so special to me.  He and I are very different.  Joe is a lot older than me.  He is male and I am female.  I am a wife and parent of young children and he is on his own.  And though we’ve never talked numbers, it’s safe to presume I have more financial means at my disposal than he does.

But the most important difference between Joe and I, at this moment in time, is our race.  Joe is a black man and I am a white woman.

A year ago, our racial difference might not have been as significant to me as it is today.  But the timing is not lost on me that, in the last 9 months, just as I began volunteering at The Collab, falling in love with historically black Hillman City and building deeper friendships with People of Color, the news has exploded with story after unbelievable story of the violent oppression of the black community in the United States.  It’s been happening for over 200 years, but for so many white people like me, suddenly illuminated by the killings and lack of accountability for the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many more, the reality is just beginning to dawn.

In the wake of these horrific events, I am often at a loss.  What response is appropriate from me, considering my deep privilege as a white person?  How do I stand up for justice without standing in the way of my black and brown sisters and brothers?  How do I deal with my whiteness in the midst of this injustice?

It is a huge and ongoing question and one that is poignantly illustrated by my being in Hillman City.  I love this neighborhood.  I’m proud to be a small part of this growing “New Harlem” and yet, is my very presence here part of the problem?  Am I – simply by virtue of my skin color – a harmful, gentrifying force?

I really don’t know. When it comes to these difficult questions, I am sure of precious little.  All I really know is that I am not capable to answer them on my own.  Nor am I capable to answer them by collaborating with other people who look like me.  And so, I think the answer for now is to reach out to my black and brown neighbors and friends; ask hard questions and be ready for hard answers.  I must shut-up and listen – deeply and humbly.

And that’s why I cherish my time with Joe so much.

When Joe saunters into The Collab, snags a cup of coffee (pouring nearly half the jar of sugar in his tiny cup) and sits down with me, his stories are more than a quick chat break or a nostalgic indulgence.  They are a precious window into a history that is not mine by birthright but which I long to understand; they are a gift of things I will never experience but must recognize; they are treasured insights from a chosen elder – not one who shares my racial or family heritage but who shares my neighborhood.  A geographical elder, if you will.

I am so honored to have Joe as my Hillman City Elder.  I still have so many questions and so many uncertainties about myself in this neighborhood: culture and privilege; gentrification and development; justice and leadership.  I am going to need a lot of help on this journey.  I’m probably going to make mistakes.  And I’m just going to have to keep trying, keep listening and stay humble.

And the next time Joe starts talking, I’m going to listen – deeply.  I’m going to soak up as much of his wisdom as he is willing to bestow and be careful not to squander the gift.  And the next time he sits down at the piano, I’m going to do my best to sing along – even if I don’t yet know the words.

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