During a brief visit to the old neighborhood recently, I was surprised to learn that the collection of buildings so familiar to me not so many years ago had now become a source of fear in the community.
Everyone talked about the housing complex and the streets that snaked through it the way people talk about the earliest stages of a disease — the first insidious cancer cells that threatened to spread throughout the entire body if left unchecked.
The local paper seemed to carry a troubling story about the place every other day: how more than 60 percent all the serious crime in the usually peaceful town was concentrated in that one small area in the last few years, how the nervous town officials were desperately trying to find money to hire a couple of cops to patrol it, especially in the evenings when the shadowy figures came out to deal their drugs and do their mischief.
One night while I was there, a man was held up in the vicinity. The next day, a few neighbors were quoted in the paper as saying they were sure they had heard the pop of a gun in the night. It wasn’t the first time, they said. It wouldn’t be the last, either, not while those creeps were selling crack in there.
A disturbing mythology of evil had sprung up around the colony of small brick buildings in the last 15 years or so, one based as much on the anticipation of a crime that might occur tonight as on the anger over a crime that taken place last week.
The longtime residents of town who routinely passed the area on the way to work or shopping all had a story to tell about the place. One of my relatives shook his head with disgust as he told me about seeing a dozen cops scattered about the area one night with flashlights, combing the chain of front yards for a weapon used in a drug-related assault.
People talked of the vacant faces of young men illuminated in the yellow glow of oil drums burning on the sidewalks at night. My God, they said with disbelief, it’s getting to look like a damn ghetto over there. The consensus among law-abiding folk was that it was better to not drive those streets anymore if you could possibly avoid them. If you had to go through, go through fast.
What a change a single generation had made in the stability of life these families — my family — had once enjoyed. When my father moved the family to this town, it was to escape the fear that had begun to creep into the neighborhood back in the city. When those urban merchants began rolling grates across their shop windows at night, and menacing strangers began to displace the people we knew, my father decided it was time to go.
The suburbs, with their manicured lawns and tree-lined streets and neighborhood block parties, appeared to be the perfect solution to the threatening griminess of the cities back then. There was no crime to speak of in the suburbs. Disturbances were litmited largely to the occasional garage band that shattered the tranquility of a summer evening. Burglaries were still big events, and protective neighbors passed warnings house to house and kept an eye out for one another.
The housing complex was always filled with struggling single mothers, out-of-work fathers, and old folks surviving on pensions. But couples, young and old, sat on the front steps at night to talk away the hot nights, and children played in the yards and jumped rope on the sidewalks. The streets of the complex were familiar thoroughfares for us youngsters, our links to the baseball fields and the bowling alley nearby, and we wandered through them as casually as we would our own streets.
Now, the laughing children are gone from the sidewalks. Outsiders, ever-mindful of the reputation of the place, zip through without a thought of stopping or even slowing down. To sit on the steps at night has become a suspicious act — only the drug dealers would dare do that.
Flying back to Maine, watching the dazzling carpet of lights below dwindle to darkness as we moved north, I had a better idea of what people across the country are so frightened of in these troubled times. Crime, once the ugly reality of big-city life, has caught up with people everywhere. Whether in a quiet New Jersey suburb or a small Maine city like Bangor, violence can find you wherever you go. Sadly, there are no true havens anymore, no crime-free zones where desperation and guns have not shot a few holes in our security.
Having seen my old neighborhood give up just one of its streets to crime, I can’t help thinking it had already lost much more than it could afford.