Late in 1967, after a year abroad on a sabbatical leave, H. and I bought a five story brick house on a beautiful tree-lined block in Boston’s South End. We paid $17,000, renovated it for almost one year, moved into it in early summer of ’68. The place was sold to us by an elderly black woman who had taken care of foundlings until adequate parents for them could be found by the city. She felt she was too old to continue and wanted the money for her retirement. We wanted to move downtown, into the city, away from the suburbs. We were the second white household on the block. Gentrification was on the way.
The book I have just read is that story forty years later, in Atlanta, Georgia. It is told from the point of view of the black community around a couple of blocks. There is also that white couple but the sympathies and the insights come from Barlowe, a printer by trade who is renting a house in Atlanta’s historic Fourth Ward, once home of Martin Luther King. Barlowe is a tenant, his nephew Tyrone pays for a part of the rent so that they can swing it every month. One day they see the first white real estate agent and they understand that trouble lies ahead. He can see what is happening, slowly but clearly. Gentrification is around the corner. They will lose their homes; life will change drastically and not in their favor.
The drama is set: integration poised against old values of community. Familiar neighborhoods are destroyed; big bargains to be made for the others. The pace is urgent. The characters are broadly drawn with the exception of Barlowe and perhaps his white neighbor Sandy. The prose is pedestrian but the story is real and important and told with passion and conviction. Gentrification has no simple answers. It exists, it has always existed and it rolls in with a huge force. The little people are caught inevitably. Money wins. However, questions are raised and feelings are challenged. People learn. The book came out last year. Obama was elected the following year. Something happened. The novel will provide a view, a picture of a community perhaps you, the white reader, had not considered before. I might add, the black reader if he is from the working class, has surely not thought much about the drama either since it is his life he is struggling to keep. He is not the destructive force. He is not confused by ambivalence. He is trying to prevent the invader from snatching what is his. Barlowe is puzzled: he is struggling to get it.
Please don’t complain that I have not told you the plot. I never like reviews that take away my pleasure in the discovery before me. It is a gripping tale, the more so in that it is happening now, in that same country courageous enough to opt for a real change.