smart home ownership in a transitional neighborhood
October 3, 2019 5:06 AM   Subscribe

We bought a lovely house. It's our first house (after a long time in apartments), and it's in a different kind of neighborhood than we've lived in before. Help us stay both safe and neighborly?

So we bought a house in Detroit. The neighborhood is much more economically stable than much of the city, the house has been well-maintained, and there is little blight around the area. Yay! We are on a lovely, shaded street, lots of kids playing in front yards, with a pretty active community association and neighborhood watch. Double Yay! There is a rich Jewish history in the neighborhood that is important to us to engage with as we confront the legacy of white flight in Detroit. Triple Yay!

However! This is still Detroit, and the property and violent crime stats in our new neighborhood are still significantly higher than we are used to. While the neighborhood isn't particularly impoverished, it's definitely not the affluent West Coast neighborhood we moved away from. And finally, the neighborhood is largely Black. We are not. There are some other white families living in and moving into the neighborhood, and there are very legitimate fears in the community forums that gentrification is looming. We are very cautious about fueling gentrification, and we are not interested in being bad cross-cultural neighbors. We've decided to use black-owned businesses in the neighborhood as extensively as possible, to attend community meetings but commit to just listening, and to try as hard as we can to avoid asking stupid or stupidly racist questions. Chief among the list of questions that seem insensitive to pose to our neighbors is "How do you deal with crime?".

We know some common solutions to common problems in Detroit. For example, our new neighbors advised us to install a steel cage over our air conditioner to prevent theft. We will be installing a security system, and we have a garage. But what else should we be doing to wisely protect ourselves and our property without clutching our pearls and being annoying or racist neighbors?

Have you lived in a diversifying neighborhood without being an economic or moral problem? Have you made small to large adjustments to your lives to be better neighbor? If you have seen white Jewish social workers colonize your neighborhood for the worse, what actions did they take that diminished the character of the neighborhood? And, of course, what glaring omission of knowledge or attitude jumps out to you in this question? I appreciate all of your help as we try to do our best.
posted by skookumsaurus rex to Human Relations (11 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Welcome to a city that deserves a lot of respect for what it's been through at the hands of white people. Please stop calling your neighborhood transitional, as it implies that you are imposing some sort of inevitable change upon it.

The most important thing is to accommodate yourself to the neighborhood customs, rather than expecting the neighborhood to accommodate yourself to you. For most affluent white folks, this generally means accepting that there may be a lot more street noise at different hours than you are expecting, from block parties and the like. People will also conduct their business on the street to a degree you may find downright disconcerting; you should plan to tolerate people screaming out their personal drama in the middle of the road. (This is because they lack some of the opportunities for comfortable privacy that affluent people enjoy.) This doesn't mean you can't nicely ask a neighbor to turn it down at 3 am, but you really have to adjust your expectations of what's reasonable noise. And under no circumstances make a noise complaint against your neighbors.

Under only the most extreme circumstances should you call the cops on your neighbors, period. You should genuinely believe someone's physical safety is under assault.

One way that you can use your white privilege to the neighborhood's advantage, however, is filing complaints about inadequate or missing city services. Street lights burned out? Trash not picked up from the dumpsters? You probably have more resources overall to chase down city services than your neighbors do, and an educated white-sounding voice on the phone will probably get a better response than your neighbors' might. (But, honestly, much of it will be futile.) But, of course, always be polite and respectful when interacting with city employees.

Your neighbors may expect a bit more day-to-day social interaction than you are used to. People will sit on their porches in nice weather. You should smile and wave, say hi if they say hi. If you get invited to a cookout/barbeque, make a real effort to go, but don't try bringing the potato salad.

I'll probably think of more things later, but these are the first things that come to mind.
posted by praemunire at 7:01 AM on October 3, 2019 [70 favorites]

Best answer: Don't install a video doorbell (like Ring) or obvious video surveillance, which will send a strong message that you don't want visitors. A security system & motion activated lights is plenty.
posted by veery at 8:26 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Walk around your neighborhood often. It’s so much easier to meet your neighbors and have a conversation. Participate with Trick or treating, even if you haven’t unpacked one box yet in the new house. Go to yard sales. Be active with community events by listening first. Don’t let whiteness be a distraction or an interruption when fuller participation is the goal. Saying “they were ahead of me,I can go after/next,” is an option.

Your neighbors have security strategies, talk with them about what works. Chances are they have a story to share.
posted by childofTethys at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Trick or treating can be pretty restricted/nonexistent in Detroit neighborhoods, but I expect it's a bit of a neighborhood-by-neighborhood situation. Certainly decorating for Halloween will be appreciated!
posted by praemunire at 9:08 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: But what else should we be doing to wisely protect ourselves and our property without clutching our pearls and being annoying or racist neighbors?

This is based on my personal experience, which was in the DC/Baltimore area and LA, not Detroit. So take with a grain of salt, of course:

Be very neighborly -- for all the normal reasons, but also because the best security system is neighbors who like you. Make friends, become part of the gossip chain, and trade favors back and forth. If you made too much [insert delicacy here], take some over to your neighbors! If one of them comes over, offer coffee. Etc. Just be friendly, neighborly, social. Cultivate those potential friendships.

Obviously this is very neighborhood/city/region-specific, but it might be the case that you're going to be the only Jewish people that a lot of your neighbors have ever known personally. (This has been the case for me in multiple big city neighborhoods, including ones with large Jewish populations in other parts of the city, and I'm only half and don't practice). If that seems likely to you, then be prepared for people to be curious, to have questions, to see you as exotic/weird, to have some misconceptions and even bigotries, to want to talk about their opinions about Jews in terms of politics or religion, etc. Basically, be prepared for it to be a "thing." Which can become a nice way to get to know people better, too, if you're up for sharing some of the most fun/basic cultural stuff -- like if you make challah and give some extra loaves to your neighbors, if you put a menorah in your window for Hanukkah, whatever. But you know, be prepared for being Jewish to be its own not-necessarily-neutral "thing."

Don't leave portable stuff outside, especially in the front yard. Like toys and stuff like that. I've even had a flower in a flowerpot stolen once, but to be fair, that seemed like a fluke.

Curb appeal counts! Putting sweat equity into your yard/garden/house will be especially endearing to all the house-proud grannys in the neighborhood.

If you need help on an odd job in the yard while you're working (like help carrying something, whatever), consider asking a neighborhood kid to help you for some pocket money. In general, support kids' money-making and fundraising efforts. Doesn't have to be anything crazy, but throw a few bucks their way when they're trying to shovel on a snow day or sell candy bars for XYZ club or whatever. In general, try to connect with the neighborhood kids in appropriate ways (like Halloween decorating and celebrating, taking your car to the students' fundraising car wash, stuff like that) and make sure that the parents/families know that you're trustworthy and warm and someone who is helping them make the neighborhood a safe and happy place *for those specific kids,* that you see them as a valued part of your community and not as a nuisance.

If you have any ground-level basement windows, put bars on them. Get a lockable "security" screen door so that you can open the doors/windows in the summer without leaving your house wide open. You'll probably be fine, but there are brazen weirdos who legitimately will just walk into your house if there's not a physical barrier. Ask me how I know lol.

Don't make enemies or get into feuds (of course!), but if there's some asshole in your neighborhood, take that seriously and don't just write it off as a "cultural issue" or whatever. There are assholes all across the racial and socioeconomic spectrums and sometimes you run into one. And if you do, then don't be so timid about asserting your boundaries with them that they decide they can bully you with impunity. By "asshole," I mean someone doing destructive or cruel things to people they see as vulnerable, not someone who is just kind of obnoxious or noisy. I also don't mean "establish boundaries" by doing something out of proportion like calling in authorities, I mean just make it clear from your demeanor that you see what kind of person they are (a bully) and you're not cool with it. Usually that's all it takes, is communicating that you see them.

I get that you're nervous about being this odd duck and all the baggage of going into this neighborhood as one of the few/only white families on the street, but just like when you come into any well-established social system, have your wits about you while you suss out who each of your neighbors really are as individuals and what you want your relationships with them to look like, and then assert the boundaries and make/accept the friendly overtures that you want to based on that assessment. If this is an established and busy neighborhood, with a lot of people living there for years/decades and interacting constantly (which it sounds like is the case), then it's probably really complex socially, so be prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully when trying to figure out all the relationships and personalities involved. Moving into an old, tight-knit city neighborhood can be kind of like moving into a little village, with all the good (warmth! community! depth of history and tradition!) that comes with that, as well as all the bad (suspicion of outsiders! loooooong and complex social ties! everybody being in everybody's business all the time!).
posted by rue72 at 9:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I have been living in a generally similar situation (in Oakland CA) for 16 years. this is all really good advice.

get out and get to know your neighbors! be chill about noise and people on the street. (I have never called the cops in 16 years because I have never seen anyone being like, actively murdered, which is probably what it would take for me). you talk about using Black businesses, this is great!

we do get trick or treaters (which is awesome) and we always get lots of good candy and I put on my witch hat to answer the door. I feel like the parents who are with the kids really appreciate this. also, if you encounter teenagers who may not even be in costume, just extend the same generosity and friendliness to them. they're still kids and maybe getting/making a costume was beyond their resources, who knows?

we've been very happy in our neighborhood, despite its rough edges, and a lot of that is due to having gotten to know our neighbors, its really nice :)
posted by supermedusa at 9:27 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For example, our new neighbors advised us to install a steel cage over our air conditioner to prevent theft. We will be installing a security system,

Definitely start out by taking advice from your more established neighbors about security precautions, like the cage for your air conditioner, but if they don't use security systems, I'd advise holding off, at least for now.

One thing that is very noticeable to me here in South Philadelphia is how newcomers sweep in and immediately prioritize installation of technology-based security. Ring doorbells and security systems and motion-detector lights! However, they do not want to adjust any expectations or take some precautions against property damage (like your air conditioner cage, or running chain through porch chairs.) They don't feel like they should have to spent the money/time installing something "ugly," they just want people to stay off their property and not take things that don't belong to them. Well, sure, but this strikes the longtime neighbors as being real short on common sense and high on entitlement.

(Bonus, our neighborhood forums are full of people with security cameras who are very upset that strangers have knocked on their doors or loitered in front of their houses. Oh dear. You can't be scared of every human while also expecting everyone to respect you as a neighbor.)

Look, I don't want my things stolen either. A package nabbed from my stoop contained a handmade gift, and I found my ceramic planter smashed on the sidewalk, obviously dropped in an attempt to make off with it. But I do understand that people stealing like this are not thinking about me as a person or trying to harm my sense of well-being. As for other crime, I do stay on top of neighborhood talk about random muggings and serial gropers. I don't bother worrying about low-level corner drug dealing. All in all, about 70% of the crime falls into the categories of "I wish this were not a thing, but it's highly unlikely to personally endanger me."
posted by desuetude at 9:38 AM on October 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: For neighborhood noise which might be more than you are used to - earplugs, sound-canceling headphones, and a white noise app are godsends. So are rugs and curtains and sturdy windows - you get more outside noise living in a leaky sieve of a house than a snug, weatherproofed one.

When I lived in a more mixed-income and mixed-ethnicity neighborhood, I'd get a lot of trick-or-treaters, so I would dress up as a witch and hand out candy, and I think that was a nice neighborly thing to do. (In my current neighborhood they all go to "trunk or treat" and I've never had a kid come to my house.)

And seconding getting to know your neighbors and being the "eyes on the street" rather than resorting to cops for everything. A neighbor and I once foiled what I think was petty theft - we were chatting outside of an evening and saw a stranger open another neighbor's car door. "Do you know Brenda?" we asked. "Uhhh..." said the guy who then ran off. Most criminals want to do their crimey thing quickly and unobtrusively and just knowing that people are watching and will speak up is a deterrent.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:26 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you have elderly neighbors, as you may well, offering to mow their lawn/shovel their driveway while you're doing your own will endear you to them pretty fast. As a general matter, and of course for whatever reason your microsituation may be different, there's a lot more interreliance in these neighborhoods, and the idea that everyone should be looking out for the seniors will be more widespread.

If you join the neighborhood watch/community association, be alert that it doesn't end up evolving into a way for assertive new white residents to impose their will/values on the neighborhood.

The party store probably sells weed, too. Be chill.
posted by praemunire at 10:51 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I live in a high crime area that is very, very ethnically diverse and have for years. We have a lot of petty theft and stupid druggie break ins and people share info on who's doing it pretty openly which is helpful. We also police strangers and lurkers heavily, which is great, I haven't had a package stolen in ages. Advice on storage is good and everyone watches each other's houses when we're out of town or working late or whatever. Kids play in the streets non-stop and I'd be worried if they weren't but they can be loud-ish. It's not a big deal and the community set up a basketball net around the corner by an empty lot where the constant noise doesn't drive anyone mad. Solutions like that are common, we don't like call the city and make demands, we fix stuff ourselves. Just act like a human being and treat your neighbors as human beings and you'll be fine.

The best car theft deterrent is a manual transmission btw.
posted by fshgrl at 12:03 PM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Say hi to everyone, look your neighbors in the eye, shop local, give a buck to the guy on the corner opening the door to the store for people
posted by entropone at 5:24 PM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

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