It was after dark yesterday evening when I set out for the Christmas Eve shindig down at the church. The whole neighborhood was lit up! Not only has the influx of young families led to lots more trees and eaves wrapped in Christmas lights, but the local neighbors group has lobbied long and hard to persuade people to line their front walkways with luminarias, which really are very lovely.
For the longest time, the leader of the pack in the Christmas decor department hereabouts was the proprietor of the Burning Bush. This guy climbs up on ladders — every year — to wrap a huge Chinaberry tree with layer on layer on layer of colored lights. These he would set on timers, so that when you looked at the thing, you’d see it all glowing in, say, red lights. Walk around the block, and you’d come back to find a the tree glowing blue. Or orange. Or yellow. Or green. It is an amazing production, to say the least.
Now he’s got some competition from the young folks, who climb on their roofs to create vast confections of lights and blow-up sculptures or cast movie images on their walls. And of course we have the luminarias.
Down at the Religious HQ, we more or less outdid ourselves for the midnight services. The sanctuary was also all lit up, draped with white lights in all directions — which makes for a pretty impressive effect when the house lights are dimmed. As usual, we had a string section, who this year were joined by our new choir director’s wife, a gifted violinist who played a lovely descant. And for the first time in my memory, we sang the Prayers of the People. I’m told that high churches Back East do this fairly routinely. I’ve never heard it before — and my mother did take me to a high church in San Francisco, back in the day when women wore gloves and hats and veils to church.
Our choir is privileged — gifted — to have many singers with professional-level talent. One of them is a tenor — he actually can sing counter-tenor — who has a truly beautiful voice. He sang the first part of prayer’s verses accompanied by the chamber choir, and the rest of us plus the congregation sang the second parts. The effect was amazing.
It was ethereal.
Over dinner at the half-time (between the early and the midnight services), several folks said people in the congregation had come up to them and spoken ecstatically about their experience of the service.
So it goes.
Sometimes, as I duck bullets or lock deadbolts during helicopter fly-overs or peruse my neighbors’ endless bellyaching on NextDoor about the bums and the thieves or cast malign thoughts in the direction of my fellow homicidal drivers, I consider how much I would like to move to Prescott or, if only I were thirty or forty years younger, back to the banks of the Hassayampa River.
But on reflection, I can’t imagine living anywhere other than North Central, if one must live in Arizona. There are, admittedly, other cities and other countries where I might have chosen to live, given a choice in the matter. But having had no choice, by luck I seem to have fallen pretty much into the best of all possible sub-domains. Can’t imagine living in the dreary HOA-ridden elbow-to-elbow suburbs that comprise the home of the ever-fleeing white middle class. Think Scottsdale is a nice place to visit but wouldn’t want to live there. And…well…that’s about the extent of your choices, unless you’re too poor to have any choice, in which case you huddle in a shack down by the airport or hang out in the poverty-ridden west side.
We — the neighbors who live on the northern and western fringes of North Central — tend to exaggerate the negative aspects of our ‘hood.
Yes, there are bums. Yes, the City seems determined to import the homeless and the transients up here and dump them into our neighborhood. Yes, they sleep in our alleys, steal our kids’ bicycles, and rip off blankets people leave on the front porch for their cats to sleep on. (No joke! Such is life in the greatest country in the world…) But by and large, they tend to gather around the meth clinic and around the unfortunate businesses at the end of the rail line.
Yes, we are bounded on two sides by dangerous slums. One of them is the territory of a menacing gang of drug dealers, serenaded by gunfire and haunted by cop helicopters. The other is more benignly poverty-ridden…bearing in mind that there is nothing benign about poverty.
However. We have nothing like the number of bums that we used to see in the tony gentrified precincts of the historic Encanto district. Ex-DH and I lived there for about 14 years, coexisting with people who used our side yards as campgrounds and any unlocked vehicle as an impromptu hotel. Our area enjoyed the highest per-capita rate of drug use in the city. How could North Central even begin to compete with that?
Our children could not play outside in front without at least one adult standing guard outside at all times. You couldn’t poke your head out the front door without seeing a bum wandering up the street. The local grade school was so bad that if you couldn’t afford an expensive private or parochial school, you had no choice but to live in and commute from the suburbs…well, assuming you wanted your kid to learn to read by the end of the first or second grade; assuming your kid didn’t know how to use a knife or a club. And though there’s often some shady frolic going on up in my present neighborhood, most of it is fairly petty. In Encanto: not so much. Here, I’ve had…what? ONE incident — the Garage Invasion — in over 25 years. There, we had the Cat Burglar on the Roof, the Night of the Screaming (in which I managed to scare off a would-be rapist by hollering “Fire!”), the Burglar Who Is Still Running (pursued to this day, in his nightmares, by an angry German shepherd who caught the poor schmuck in the kitchen at three in the morning), the Ax Murder, the All-Night Rapefest, the Sleeping Bum in the Car…it went on and on.
I did not walk in Encanto without that German shepherd at my side — it was unsafe to do so. And even with the beast in tow, I wouldn’t have walked around the block after dark for love nor money.
Here, I almost never see a bum within the neighborhood proper, unless he’s in transit through an alleyway or scavenging for identifiable paperwork in the garbage bin (those latter perps are probably not bums, anyway). The dogs and I walk through the neighborhood almost every day, and we don’t run into roaming drug addicts and neglected mental cases on the local streets. And here, I do walk those dogs at night: small dogs that can do absolutely nothing to protect me. The only thing between us and the bogeyman is a heavy walking stick — one that could easily be turned against me. And have we ever seen a bogeyman out there after dark? Nope.
Do I enjoy driving through a slum to enter my neighborhood from the north or west side? Hell, no! Should the City try to improve jobs and living conditions for residents who live in those tracts? Hell, yes!
But Phoenix is a patchwork: if you don’t live in Scottsdale or in one of the monotonous whitebread suburbs, then you live side by side with a variety of demographic sets. Very wealthy and very poor areas are packed side-by-side in this city. And that’s why you’ll find panhandlers — some of them pretty threatening, but most of them fairly mild folk — in the parking lot of a grocery store that markets to the upper middle class.
Do I shop in my neighborhood’s grocery stores? No. I do the same thing I used to do when I lived in Encanto: drive halfway across the Valley to shop where I feel safe in the parking lot, and where I can get most of the products I want without traipsing from store to store to store. Is that a deal-breaker? Nope. It’s just a fact of life in the Valley of the Sun.
In fact, for an inner-city neighborhood, our area is surprisingly safe and placid. Thanks to a change of policy in the school system allowing you to choose what public school your children will go to, you can send your kids to the public schools here — you just send them out of the district. That makes it possible for the younger families moving in now to come in and upgrade homes…and feel like decorating them with Christmas lights and luminarias.