By Karen Dempsey
“Oh, Brennan, I think that’s a bong, sweetie.”
I crouch down and wedge my fat, pregnant self under the playground slide to try and reach him. Brennan smiles and pokes gingerly at a smoke-smudged, modified Coke bottle: its neat, mouth-sized cutout for inhaling, its glittery foil screen. “Okay, Brennan, we’re going to throw that away because we need to get rid of it.” Awkward. It’s clear I have yet to read the how-to books on talking to your fifteen-month-old about drugs. I pull the bong from Brennan’s grasp and he cries out in protest, then turns his attention to the blanket of wood chips on which he sits, driving his hands luxuriously into them, celebrating with his mouth sounds, “Adju, adju, adju.”
I drop the bong in a trash can and try to lure Brennan to another part of the park. We pass a little girl sitting on the bulge-eyed rocking toy we call the “OxyContin fish.” “Drugs are good,” the huge plastic fish proclaims in permanent black marker. “Get some now!” Brennan takes my hand to climb the toddler train that bears the park’s most provocative message, the one found also on the basketball backboards, the wooden benches, the curving yellow slide. “Kill A Yuppie,” the neighborhood teens have scrawled. “Save Families.”
The authors of these messages identify themselves as “DVS,” or “DaVille Soljahs.” Messages that make me smile—”Have unprotected sex promptly!”—share the playground with darker writings, like “Yuppies=Pilgrums, DVS=Indiens.” A local alderman wrote about the struggles of these teens in her newsletter. She described the losses they had experienced, the friends who had died from violence, drugs and suicide. These teenaged “soljahs of da ‘ville,” she observed, are defenders of their lost city, their writings the idylls of a youth far from idyllic. She received an e-mail response, signed by DVS, that read in part: “Dear Denise … Fuck you and your article about how we don’t know what to do. We do know what to do, and that’s kill all yuppies.”
A few days after Brennan found the bong, the Department of Public Works guys show up at the playground with the cans of steel-gray paint they use to periodically mask the graffiti and assuage the frustrated parents who have found themselves in a turf war with the neighborhood’s clever, but increasingly marginalized and disillusioned teens.
This visit from DPW raises the stakes, though. The workers are accompanied by our enthusiastic young mayor, striking in a tie and shirtsleeves despite the ninety-degree heat. A sheen of perspiration lends him an athletic glow. He stands near the picnic tables talking to a young couple and their baby. A few feet away, on the basketball court, five or six of the neighborhood teens half-watch this exchange as they bounce a ball among them. One scowls in anger; the others wear practiced expressions of indifference. Crowding them off the court are two uniformed police officers talking to several other people accompanied by young children. One cop has drawn out a notebook, but the conversation seems informal, even affable.
I am trying to decode this scene when the mayor meets my gaze and walks toward me. We exchange the expected pleasantries, and then I wait for him to explain his appearance on this sweltering Friday. There’s been no serious incident, the mayor assures me, but there was some particularly disturbing graffiti near the park’s entrance and he’s having his crew clean it up. He has heard from several people about tensions between the teenagers and young families who use the park. The police have identified some of the teen “ringleaders” and will let them know that defacing the playground with threatening graffiti is unacceptable. The teens need to learn to respect other people, the mayor says a number of times.
I tell the mayor, as I have told some other parents in the neighborhood, that my own interactions with the teens have been fine. “I think these kids are just a little lost,” I say.
He looks back at the teens on the basketball court and explains that they had been smoking cigarettes when he arrived. “We have little kids running barefoot who could step on a cigarette butt,” the mayor says, gesturing at the playground sprinkler. “There’s no smoking in the park. It’s unacceptable.” His commitment to the park’s toddlers is admirable, but I can’t help but think his perspective sounds limited, narrow, not unlike some of the neighborhood parents who are loudest in their condemnation of the teens.
Under the mayor’s watch, the DPW workers are so diligent in their removal of the graffiti, they erase even the one message they had let stand for nearly a year, the writing on the basketball court that read, in careful block print, twelve inches high, “RIP Ryan.”
When John and I moved to Somerville five years ago, we joked about the group of rowdy preteen boys on our street. Street toughs, John called them, because they were small, children still, but they had an undeniable edge to them. I spent our first weeks in the apartment unpacking boxes with every window in the place forced open, welcoming the breezes and the voices of the kids. One afternoon I leaned on a windowsill and watched them charge up and down the street with a video camera, shouting instructions at one another as they choreographed some kind of skit that involved “the bully”—the largest kid among them—tossing the others onto the hoods of various cars. I thought they might be working on a school project until I heard the dialogue, which was peppered with four-letter words. Eventually, the cranky old-timer three doors down came out and shouted, “Get off that car!” The kids froze. Then a small, nimble boy whooped and ran right over the top of the car from bumper to bumper, and the kids all ran laughing down the street.
As I immersed myself in my working life, and as the boys grew into their teens, I saw them less often, and only from a distance. They were a more peripheral presence, hanging out at the margins of the playground or leaning against the rusting blue car they seemed to share among them. Then I had Brennan, and I began spending my days at the playground, reading the messages left there and wondering about the boys who had grown up around me without my ever really noticing.
For the most part, the boys on our street had always been a blur to me, one running into the other. They moved in a pack and I could only guess at who lived in which house. John took closer notice of the brother and sister who lived just a few doors down and spent a lot of time playing hockey together in the street. He said it would be great if the girl could one day babysit Brennan and teach him to play hockey. We didn’t even know their names until we read them in the newspaper, after the boy, Ryan, was killed in a stabbing just two blocks from his house. He was sixteen.
The article said that Ryan had been walking along the bike path near the playground when he came upon a fight involving a friend who was outnumbered four to one. Ryan intervened. He was stabbed to death, witnesses said, by a twenty-four-year-old man.
In the days after Ryan’s death, a memorial grew along the fence and sidewalk in the place where he’d been killed. Brennan slept as I pushed his stroller down the bike path toward that place. Some city workers were making repairs on the street nearby and one stopped to guide me across. A woman and a boy of twelve or thirteen stood before the fence. She rested a hand on his shoulder. He held a pen. I walked on, but came back after they’d gone.
On the sidewalk, candles burned in jelly jars still bearing their labels. Flowers and balloons wilted in the heat. There were Irish flags, a hockey stick and a team jersey. An emptied pack of gum. And all along the wooden fence were the handwritten messages from friends, family, neighbors, strangers.
“Rest in Peace, Ryan” trailed over the fence in dozens of different hands.
“Let Martini and Matty show you the ropes up there. We miss you down here,” someone had written.
“I never told you how I felt.”
“I never knew you, but I wish I did.”
“Your shamrock was better than Katie’s.”
“Biology class was fun with you.”
“You are our angel. Please watch over us.”
And there was Ryan, in photo after photo. Little-boy face and gleaming, black Irish eyes. In a hockey uniform with the rest of his team. In a tux posing with his prom date. Huddled on a porch with four other boys in a picture with the handwritten caption, “The Crew.
Carefully typed out and laminated were the lyrics to a U2 song. I can’t believe the news today / Can’t I just close my eyes and make it go away?
And in the perfect cursive of an elderly neighbor named Ruth was the message, “I tried to comfort you that sad evening. My heart is broken.”
Sitting with Brennan on our front porch, I watched as people, especially young people, moved in and out of Ryan’s house those first few days, and gathered in the street in quiet groups of three or four. A teenaged boy bounced a basketball with Ryan’s younger sister. The old-timer three doors down spoke animatedly, angrily, to another neighbor. He waved his arms as he told the story, his hand making stabbing gestures in the air. With all of the activity, though, the street felt heavy with silence. The morning of the funeral, a procession of teenagers made their way down our street, young people awkward in their dress clothes, the girls stepping carefully in high heels.
Since having Brennan, I see my world and everything in it through the lens of new motherhood, a magnified sense of vulnerability that keeps me awake thinking about the dangers we might face every day. Toxins, illnesses, unrestrained dogs, careless drivers. I catalog the hazards, nursing my anxiety. When Ryan died, my sister asked whether John and I were struggling with our decision to raise Brennan in the city. But my reaction to Ryan’s death was more complicated than fear, and more simple. I did experience it through a filter of new motherhood, but what came through, more than my own vulnerability and fear, was a grief and sadness made more raw and vivid than I might have imagined before becoming a parent. Serving as a distant witness to the unimaginable loss of this boy made me feel not less a part of this community but more, more connected and committed to it.
If you could stand on the roof of the house where we live, you would see the Boston skyline just a few miles to the south. You would see the comfortable old houses that have been tended by generations of working-class families, the aging double- and triple-deckers standing shoulder to shoulder, row on row, with fortitude and grace. You would see some of the many restaurants and coffee shops that now populate the neighborhood, the independent bookstore, and the movie theater. And on the street behind ours, you’d see a splash of vibrant red and yellow that is the renovated playground.
It was only over the past decade or so that my neighborhood found itself in the unyielding embrace of gentrification. Lot by lot, the houses have been snatched up by developers, gutted to the studs, chopped into small condos, and outfitted with granite countertops and walk-in closets for the neighborhood’s new tenants, young professionals drawn to the easy commute into Boston. In ten years’ time, the average selling prices of single-family and multi-family homes in this neighborhood more than tripled. In 1996, there were seventeen condos sold in our neighborhood. In 2006, there were two hundred and seven.
John and I stretch our budget thin to afford the rent on our apartment, a tiny, falling-down place. But the people who truly cannot afford to live here, but do, are the families who have lived here for decades, the families whose children will not be able to buy or even rent homes in the neighborhood their own parents and grandparents built.
Before the mayor’s visit, one of the teens’ more clever acts of defiance was to take hostage the used plastic ride-on toys that families had donated to the playground. Rather than simply steal the toys, the teens had hidden them in plain sight. They’d parked them in a neat row on the roof of a bakery overlooking the playground, challenging the young parents to hoist their soft-middled selves up the side of the building and retrieve them. A new message had appeared on the park bench: “DVS not responsible for damaged or stolen property.”
A mom I didn’t know complained about the teens’ prank as we pushed our children on the swings, the pink-and-blue plastic of the marooned toys still peeking out at us from the bakery rooftop. Some of the families who have sacrificed the expansive lawns of the suburbs for urban living want the park to serve as their own backyards, a place for neighborhood potlucks and birthday parties. When they donate a well-used toddler toy to the playground, they expect to find it there, intact and graffiti-free, when they return to use it the next day.
As we talked, the woman asked which street I lived on, and hesitated at my response. “I’m so sorry about your neighbor,” she said, and then, “Was he a good kid?” I felt confused by the question. If she was asking whether Ryan would have enjoyed seeing the Big Wheels held hostage on the roof, I thought that most sixteen-year-old boys would have liked that one. “I didn’t know him,” I said finally. “But, yeah. He was a good kid.”
Our apartment doesn’t come with a parking spot, so sometimes I find myself in front of Ryan’s house, strapping Brennan into his car seat as he wrestles against me and laughs at his reflection in the mirror. I cannot help but look up at the front door, where at various times over the past months someone has found the strength to mark the passing holidays with a dancing leprechaun, with tiny white lights at Christmas, and, the month before that, with balloons and a happy birthday sign to mark Ryan’s seventeenth birthday, the birthday he didn’t live to see.
I think about Ryan’s parents, about his mother, mostly, and what I might say to her if I meet her, what profoundly insufficient words of sympathy I might speak. Twice, from my car, I catch brief glimpses of her as she stoops over a flower pot, as she unlocks her front door. I want to call out to her, but I do not. I just want her to know—I want them all to know—that their pain is not invisible to me.
For a long while after the mayor’s visit, the park remains remarkably empty of graffiti. The police maintain a zealous guard and zero-tolerance policy in enforcing the park’s designated closing time so the teens can’t linger after dark with their beers and bongs, their spray paint cans and Sharpies. School is out, but during the day the basketball court is littered only with scooters and strollers and bikes with training wheels.
When the teens do show up at the park, Brennan clings to the fence outside the basketball court as we watch them dribble and shoot. We sometimes get a nod or a wave, sometimes not.
I am not the enemy, I want to tell them. But, of course, I am. They are not wrong to look at me and see someone with an easier life. I have found a place for myself in this neighborhood as they are losing theirs. I gave up a good job to be at home with my family, and still we manage to pay the bills every month. And I have friends with these same choices and opportunities. Friends who are not dying from drugs or suicide or a chance encounter on the bike path.
John and I both come from places more like this community’s past than the neighborhood it is becoming. We are drawn here because of its working-class roots, not in spite of them. At the same time, we are largely insulated from the struggles and tragedies of the families being displaced by people like us. Despite the threatening graffiti on the playground, it is not the yuppies who are dying, it is the teenagers themselves. And while we admire the city’s history, its diversity of race and class, we are among those responsible for diluting the very qualities that attract us.
I take Brennan to the middle school to sign up for a Water Babies class, and I have to navigate the stroller through a group of smoking, angry-looking adolescents who seem loathe to make room on the sidewalk to let me pass. “Hi!” I chirp at them, sounding absurdly fake even to myself. But inside the school, I ask a passing teacher for directions to the pool office, and kids slightly younger than their peers outside fall all over themselves trying to out-shout each other with different routes I can take. The elevator! The green stairs! Outside and in the side door! The teacher simply talks over them, accustomed to their excitement, able to shut it out. Their enthusiasm won’t last, I thought to myself on the walk home. There is not enough space here for it, no room for it to grow.
At the end of summer, we make the leap from renters of a sub-standard apartment to owners of an undersized, overpriced condo half a mile away. Brennan and his sister, due any day now, will have several new playgrounds to choose from. But often in the mornings, Brennan and I take the longer stroll to our old park. He knows the walk well, and before the playground is within view he starts shouting and trying to free himself from the belts on his stroller.
I miss this place and the people it holds, the parents working to build community in a place where so much works against them—geography and demographics and a population density so thick you can feel it when you breathe. I miss the graffiti, too. Because I miss the teens who’ve been banished from here, or who will leave, anyway, as they navigate a changing landscape where their lives no longer quite fit.
Two blocks away from the playground, in the place where Ryan died, his friends still cover the fence with new messages promising always to remember him. But in the place where Ryan lived, the one small tribute to him is hidden beneath a coat of paint.
Not until summer draws to a close does some new writing appear on the basketball court; a single message, in pink sidewalk chalk: “Graffiti is gone. Gangs-n-drugs aren’t. Problem solved? Yours truley, DVS.”
Author’s Note: Soon after the events described in this essay, a remarkable group of young people who had grown up in the neighborhood initiated a formal dialogue between long-time residents and newcomers. From those first conversations grew a list of action steps to build community. Step number three was, “Look people in the eye, and say Hi.”
The group formed a nonprofit organization to advocate for change, including a small but significant change to the park: a reconfiguring of the park’s two half-basketball courts to make one full court with a high fence to protect the playground from errant balls, and designated areas for artwork around the court, including a tribute to Ryan. The mayor heard them out; the renovations are scheduled for early this summer.
Brain, Child (Summer 2007)
About the Author: Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.