Last week, I found out that my neighbor across the street, Wilma, had died. I hadn’t seen her around in a while, but it was still very much a surprise. She was one of those people you always assume will be there. She was the definition of a neighborhood institution. While we were friendly, I wish I had been as good of a neighbor to her as she was to the whole neighborhood.
Wilma grew up down the block from her current house, around the corner from her grandparents. My neighborhood is a historically black community and her family was a fundamental part of its foundation. She told me stories about when she was a kid and everyone had apple trees and chickens that ran amuck on the sidewalk. After men came back from fishing, multiple families would come together and share a big fry up. The city didn’t provide many services – there are still some houses with wood-fired stoves because it took so long to get gas service – but they preferred being ignored to being harassed or worse.
As Wilma grew older, the neighborhood began to develop problems, namely crime and drugs. While it had always been poor due to systemic racism, it had previously been safe. But in the 80s, It was one of the main gateways for drugs into D.C. There was at least one murder (and probably others). It had enough of a reputation that even when we moved here in 2010, the landlords from our former apartment warned us against it.
But Wilma wasn’t going to let that stand for long. As the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood, she ran the neighborhood’s advisory board. The board represented community needs to the city government, ranging from concerns about large trucks on the streets to over-development. She was the Commissioner of the local Housing Authority and advocated for better, more affordable housing. By finding private funding for the project, she was a big part of the movement to replace the run-down subsidized apartments nearby with new integrated, multi-income townhouses. Since then, our county has largely moved towards integrated subsidized housing because it’s more respectful towards low-income folks and prevents a lot of the problems caused by ghettoizing people. Her efforts largely contributed to the fact that my neighborhood is safe enough that I feel comfortable and happy raising my son here.
Needless to say, that was all before we moved in. I wouldn’t have known about any of it if Wilma didn’t make an effort to be as welcoming and friendly as possible towards us from the very beginning. As Chris and I are a young, upper-middle-class white couple – the epitome of gentrifiers – she had every right to be skeptical. But she never was. She opened us with open arms, frequently saying hello to us from her porch. Although she didn’t think it would be successful – at first – she loved the fact that I was growing vegetables in my garden. And when Sprout came along, she absolutely adored him. She was always asking after him and what new milestones he was passing. By making us part of the essential fabric of our neighborhood, she made us comfortable enough that we wanted that for ourselves too.
When I found out she died, I was struck by a deep loss. Regret that I hadn’t checked in on her and helped her when she was sick. Regret that I had never expressed my appreciation for her. Sadness that Sprout wouldn’t be able to grow up with this wonderful older black woman as one of many diverse role-models. Sadness that we lost such an important person to our neighborhood.
Wilma was truly a good neighbor to everyone around her. With her absence, it will be up to the rest of us to reach our hands out to help each other in honor of her memory.
What neighbors have you had that affected you?