My life in gentrification nation has been a formative experience. From moving into a house with my mom in Seattle’s quickly transitioning, historically black neighborhood back in high school, to now living with my friends in a notoriously sketchy section of Oakland, I’ve experienced two areas of two different cities that are in the midst of socioeconomic transition. It’s obvious that I’m a part of it because I’m new here, and white, and I come from a middle-class family, and I think things like “I’m so happy my neighbors put the petunia planters here. I hope it will discourage the discarding of hypodermic needles!”
There’s a lot of social complexity in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, which are often characterized by fascinating but frequently awkward phases of tension between the lifelong residents and the people (such as me) who move in and, over time, alter the demographic. This is a BIG can of worms to open, but it’s a huge part of my adolescent experience, and speaks to how comfortable I feel in places that Girls Like Me (blondish, occasionally dressed like a kindergarten teacher) historically might not. But I worry I may have become too comfortable walking by myself late at night, too accustomed to daily life in somewhat questionable neighborhoods. Not that there was much I could do to change the situation I’m about to describe, but I guess that it was a wake-up call not to take my safety for granted.
At least a couple of times a week, I take the bus back from campus at either eight or 11 PM, then walk eight blocks through downtown Oakland to my apartment. I walk swiftly, with my pepper spray-equipped key ring in hand and my cell phone in my pocket, taking only busy, well-lit streets. On Monday of last week, I was only three blocks from home when a man stormed up to me, got in my face, and called me a “white bitch.” I tried to slip past him, responding, “Yep, you’re right.” Street harassment is common in every major city. Not reacting has worked for me in situations like this thus far.
But as I tried to keep moving, the guy chest-bumped me and repeated his insult. As I fiddled with the switch on my pocket spray, I yelled, “Get OUT of my FACE!” I was almost done getting the safety switch off the thing when he did it again, pushing me backwards. Gathering all of my strength, I looked into his bloodshot eyes and told him to “get the FUCK off of me.” But I wasn’t quick enough, because he socked me in my left eye. It made me dizzy, though I remember hearing the group of people he was with collectively gasp in protest as he pushed me to the ground, where I fell on my right arm underneath the brightest street lamp on the block. I was in adrenalized-survival mode, struggling aggressively. Above all, I was feeling a mix of shock and the most extreme level of anger I have ever felt in my life. But what could I do? I protected my head to the best of my ability, but that left my back and neck exposed. He kicked me in the face and the back of the neck four or five times before one of the people with him got him off of me. They got into a car and sped around the corner, but he walked away on foot. I regained my vision and fuzzily focused in on my Mace, aimlessly spraying it in the air like it was Febreze. I screamed vengeful thoughts at him as he walked away, making sure he knew that there’s a special place in hell for people who randomly beat up girls. I vaguely remember threatening to make his eyes bleed.
I looked around the block and saw only one dazed face, and I realized that my only witness was visibly cracked-out. No one was at the window of the drive-through across the street, nor the gas station on the next corner, so I called my roommate Leah and had her open the door for me as I stormed home, still on the phone with her, still screaming revenge at the attacker.
All of my neighbors in our complex came upstairs to help me clean up the cuts along my earlobe, scalp, knee, and elbows as I cried in a few bursts. They checked to see if the bleeding on my scalp would need stitches, and if I had a concussion. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to the hospital. They called the police. I waited for three hours, but when they didn’t show, I eventually gave up and tried to go to sleep. It was three AM. The next day I skipped my first class, but woke up early anyway to call my mom. My neighbors made me kumquat biscuits and visited periodically.
I was dizzy for much of the next week, and it was hard to write or hold a thought for a few days. Having people in my classes ask me about my developing black eye was helpful at first, because talking about it made me less anxious. Otherwise I would get too in-my-own-head, and forget to put the incident in perspective: my body was OK, save for the scratch on my cornea. I sort of pride myself on being the kind of person who can take things in stride. I told myself, “Let’s be real. This stuff happens to people. It is a thing that happened to you that will not change your life.” But, as I continued to take public transportation alone at night, I’d get uncontrollably anxious. My favorite activity—drinking with friends—made me more depressed than happy.
Now I’m feeling OK again, and I’m waiting for my second chiropractic appointment and a meeting with a school counselor next week. I’ve mostly received comforting responses from the people in my life, but a couple of them suggested that I leave the area. Oh sure, I’ll go pay twice as much to live in San Francisco, which I love half as much. Some kids I know who live deeper in the hood viewed it as a rite of passage. Other people, such as my dad, told me to do something differently next time, or just avoid walking at night, because that is so possible. (Yeah, I should’ve pulled out the pepper spray sooner, and next time I go from peacefully walking home to bleeding on the ground in under 10 seconds, I’ll try to remember that!)
Those responses have driven me nuts. It’s true, if I lived in a place that wasn’t experiencing growing pains, this wouldn’t be an everyday risk. It’s also true that my presence in Oakland is part of the mechanism of change. Gentrification is complex. It’s personal and political, and it’s associated with plenty of polarizing effects, both positive and negative. There’s only one thing I know for sure: there is no pure and perfect truth for the questions that arise regarding urban neighborhoods in transition. My incident does not define my experience of living here. The area between “right” and “wrong,” that’s where you can find me, loving my home and trying my best to live my magical life. ♦