For the first time in my life, I have real neighbors, and I found them in the most unexpected place.
I grew up in your average suburban neighborhood. Despite all the surrounding houses being occupied, we never had real neighbors. No one ever made an effort to be neighborly; everyone generally kept to themselves.
But finally, I have neighbors, and I don’t even live in your picturesque suburban community — far from it, actually. I live in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a place with a background so deep it requires a whole story in itself.
The first person from the neighborhood I met was a young black man who introduced himself as Donovan. He noticed my mom and I were moving things into my new condo and he kindly offered to help. We talked for a moment, and he mentioned that he lived in the same building when he was a kid. If you know anything about OTR’s history, you can guess that when Donovan was a kid, this probably wasn’t a particularly nice place to live. Since then, the building has been gutted and refurbished into upscale condos.
“It’s a good building, isn’t it?” He had a sense of nostalgia in his voice.
Although he didn’t intend for them to, his words stung a little as I felt an undesirable sense of white privilege.
A couple years ago, I interviewed a longtime OTR resident named Al Catone, whose words I have carried with me ever since.
“The white folks that moved into Over-the-Rhine, I guess they’re not educated to what city life is and what diversity is, ‘cause the majority of them is from a suburban area,” Catone said. And it’s like, ‘go in your house, shut your garage’ type of attitude. Well, in the city, you’ve got to communicate with everybody. Even the homeless man means something; even the bum on the street means something; even your neighbor means something.”
That hit deep. I had been to OTR plenty enough to observe exactly what he meant. I knew when I moved into Over-the-Rhine myself that I wanted to be a different type of neighbor.
One of the first things I noticed after moving into the neighborhood was that, during my short two-block walk from my condo to my parking garage, almost every black person I passed said hello to me. What a simple revelation. In my whole 22 years of life, I’d never experienced this regularly. And strangely enough, those simple hellos brought me so much joy.
Now I always say hello when I walk past someone, and faces are becoming more and more familiar. Could it be that I have…neighbors? — friendly neighbors?
For the first time in a few months, I saw Donovan again. I was walking the two-block trip from the parking garage to my condo. I walked toward the small playground on Republic Street with the large, colorful mural of children named “Superheroes of Republic Street.”
I saw a young man wearing a matching mint-green T-shirt and shorts outfit who was sitting on a bench at the playground. He immediately recognized me and quickly walked up to say hello. He stuck his hand out for a handshake, and we chatted for a couple minutes. He said he noticed I got a new car. Strangely, that felt comforting, like something a real neighbor would say. I can picture two suburban dads in their respective driveways hollering to one another, “Hey, Jim. I see you got a new car!” Although mine happened a little differently, it was still the same idea.
Donovan commented on how the neighborhood has changed, and I immediately thought of Al Catone.
“I like this new community,” Donovan said.
I smiled. Times like these make me like it too, I thought. I told Donovan how nice it was to see him. It’s always good to catch up with a neighbor in this place I call “home.”