Saturday, April 12, 2014

How to Turn A Truck Stop into a Home

The other day I was at a community festival in the middle of a large apartment complex. I stood on a grassy knoll and talked with a resident of the neighborhood.
"So how do you like living here?"
"It's OK. I mean, it has it's moments, but I don't want to be here forever. Nobody WANTS to live here. Everybody is just here because they have to be. It's the cheapest place in town. We're just passing through."
He went on to explain that once he starts making money off his new business, he's going to move to a nicer neighborhood. One with less crime, less trash in the streets, less noise--more peace, quiet and scenery. The neighborhood he wanted to leave - the one we were standing in - wasn't horrible. It wasn't riddled with broken windows and overrun by gangs, but it wasn't great either. It was full of small apartments stacked up in huge complexes, multiple families living in close quarters, teenagers with shaved heads and baggy pants hanging out on street corners and men with tattoos and cigarettes working on old cars in garages with music blaring. Trash bags floated in the air and stuck to chain link fences. Graffiti showed up overnight on light poles. Produce trucks stopped in alleys and threw up their back doors signaling they were open for business. Stray dogs ran down sidewalks, crossed busy streets lined with cars and dipped into the wash where they were likely chased by coyotes who use the dry riverbed as a passageway, along with the homeless. "So close and yet so far!" could be the theme of this neighborhood. It was just a few miles from some of the wealthiest places in town. Heck, if you could walk up the dry riverbed with the coyotes, you'd reach the spacious stucco mansions on the golf course in a few minutes. But people like this middle-aged African-American man I was talking with didn't hike up the riverbed. They hiked up their sleeves and worked hard and prayed that someday soon, they could move out of here.

"Nobody wants to be here...we're just passing through." Could this be the Chamber of Commerce slogan for this neighborhood?  Ironically, the slogan for the city where this neighborhood is located is: "Where the Good Life Takes You." So, maybe the slogan for this neighborhood is:
Where the average life dumps you off.
Where barely surviving forces you to live.
Where a turn for the worse leaves you stranded.
Where the good life beckons from the other side of the riverbed.

"Nobody wants to be here...we're just passing through..."
After talking awhile longer, we shook hands and smiled and I wandered off to talk with others and get a bottle of Gatorade donated by a local business. The weather was unusually warm for Spring. I could smell exhaust fumes and hear the whir of vehicles speeding down busy street near the festival. A siren blared as an emergency vehicle went by. Kids were running, laughing and yelling and someone was on the microphone calling out Bingo letters and numbers. 0-72, B3...It was then, I had a "Bingo!" moment of my own.
No wonder this neighborhood has problems.
It's a truck stop.
Think about it...
Nobody lives here. They just stay here temporarily. Like a truck stop - I sleep here, eat here, stay here, but I don't put my roots down here. I don't look out my window and say, "I want to make this the safest, prettiest truck-stop in town."  I just look out and say, "What's here that I need? That I want? Then I get it and get out as soon as I can."
Think about the profound impact this mentality has on a neighborhood...
I don't want to be here. This is only home because it has to be. I wouldn't be here otherwise. I don't take pride in it. I don't plan to be here long so who cares if I trash it? Who cares if I upset my neighbors with my loud music? So what if I don't clean up after my dog or my backyard party? Yeah, my porch is messy and my kitchen is a health hazard. So? I don't own this place. I don't even like this place. I'll be gone soon. Hopefully. I want up and out as soon as I get a few dollars. Then I won't have to look at the bald and baggy kids hanging out on the corner selling you-know-what. I won't smell pot wafting in through my window anymore. I won't have to fight for parking or worry about my daughters walking home from school past old men who whistle at them. I'll leave it all behind.
No ownership.
No pride.
No roots.
No community-mindedness.
No working together, banding together, joining together, making it better together, enjoying our neighborhood together.
Just stopping, eating, sleeping, surviving and then "on the road" again as soon as I got somewhere else better to go.  Next stop? Anywhere but here.
The community festival was a welcome diversion for families on a Friday night. The kids liked having their face painted and the people from the local non-profits who showed up really did want to get the word out about their counseling, health and family programs. There were prizes for the Bingo winners thanks to generous businesses and the large playground structure was mobbed with kids of all ages trying to make it to the top. But this was a truck-stop festival. It would be gone in a few hours when the coordinators packed up all their goodies and drove off.  They were trying to do something good here. Everyone was. But it was a little bit like having a family festival at Union Station.
So I started to wonder...How do you turn a truck-stop into a home?
It's not easy. The simple way to put it is we have to create community.  
Make it a place we want to be.
Where we feel connected.
Where we know people care about each other, look out for each other, even those that aren't family.
Make it a place we can all be proud to call home even if it isn't going to be home forever.
Sure, we may move on someday, but we hope we get to stay more than just a little while. We like it here. We have friends here. It's safe. Quiet. The flowers bloom where there used to be weeds. Mr.Smith fixes people cars when they break down. Ms. Lopez makes the best flan and she shares it with everyone. Johnny just graduated from high school and Martha is going to college to be a teacher. Sure, we see the cops, but they wave, they don't glare. Teens used to hang out on our street corners, but we found someone who helped them get jobs and on Saturday nights, Art from the neighborhood plays basketball with them. We know this place isn't perfect, but we're proud of it. We planted flowers. We painted over graffiti. We made sack lunches for the homeless...
We banded together, bonded together, and turned our truck-stop into a home.
Stay for awhile, won't you?

-Hope A. Horner, 2014
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