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August 28, 2007

the abandoned

the old ebog block

from the LA Times:

Houses abandoned to foreclosure are beginning to breed trouble, adding neighbors to the growing ranks of victims.

Stagnant swimming pools spawn mosquitoes, which can carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus. Empty rooms lure squatters and vandals. And brown lawns and dead vegetation are creating eyesores in well-tended neighborhoods.

In Northridge, the house next door to Michael McKenna's was put on the market, sold and then foreclosed on, all in the space of a few months last spring.

With the five-bedroom home now forsaken and deserted, McKenna has been reluctantly cutting the lawn and dumping chemicals in the pool to kill the bugs.

"I resent having to do this," the former studio production manager said. "It's breaking my back."

More than 100 houses a day are being foreclosed on in Southern California, up from 13 a day last year. That's still a relative handful for such a populous area, but even the optimists predict that the problem will soon get much worse. [full story, h/t atrios]

When I was growing up in Queens there was a house on our black that stood abandoned for almost two decades. We dropped the "house" and just called it "the Abandoned," as in "Let's go over to the Abandoned," or: "Where's Mark? He's at the Abandoned with Tommy."

The older boys would break into the Abandoned fairly regularly to drink and smoke cigarettes in the basement, and my generation kept all our pornography in the garage. (t was all hard copy in those days.) I remember that house as a usefully scuzzy freezone on our otherwise solidly and neatly trimmed, middle-middle class block. We told the littler kids that it was haunted, and I made out once with a lanky girl named Melissa who was summer-visiting from the Bronx, this in the tall, wheaty stalks that took over its back yard during the summer. When we stretched out in the weeds we could have been in a prairie for all we knew. The plants dampened the already suburban quiet, and all we could see besides each other was a 360 degree curtain of golden stalks, a ragged swath of blue overhead. My block sat beneath a major approach flightpath into Kennedy Airport, and every few minutes the sky would fill with a low-flying plane tracking the rough north-south orientation of 227th Street. It made Queens feel like a kind of fly-over country.

We were too young to have any real connection to the economic or family dynamics that had kept the Abandoned unoccupied for so long, although I do have a vague recollection that it was owned by someone who was elderly and down South. Our parents, of course, viewed the house as a kind of tumor that could spread in any direction at any moment. The house directly to the south of the Abandoned was a meticulously tended property owned by an elderly, white hold-out couple, and when the husband died there were whispers that his dotty widow wouldn't be able to keep up appearances to the satisfaction of the block's homeowners association. (The worries of first-generation property owners are numerous and complex, and the white folks who had sold our parents their homes let everyone know they figured the block was going to go to the dogs in their absence.) She was completely mad, that old white lady. She once chased me down the block yelling that I had left a pile of rocks in front of her stoop, and she was convinced that the boys on the street were constantly playing elaborate pranks on her. (We were, kind of.) When a stray ball - stick, foot, base or basket - landed in her yard there was a thrill of excitement and terror at the prospect of having to go get it, this because you never knew when she would come barreling out from behind her screen door, shouting your house number out at the top of her lungs. (The elderly white folks on our block didn't know our names, so they referred to us by the house number in our addresses. I was "68", which I always found numerologically significant given that 1968 was the year of my birth.)

The house directly to the north of the Abandoned was the " Monkey Bar House," this because of the elaborate set of monkey bars (!) installed in the back yard. The Monkey Bar House was a small single-story affair that came with its own, built-in aura of parental disrepute, this over how the owners rented it out instead of living there like good, honest people. The block association, being full of folks who had moved to South Queens in order to build equity, was of a mind that that renters and rentals were a step backward on the evolutionary chain, but at kid-level the occupants of the Monkey Bar House could do no wrong as long as they let us use the bars. Jazz drummer Chick Corea had lived there for a spell in the late sixties / early seventies, and although I was too young to overlap with him, the older boys had fond memories of his generosity with monkey-bar access, liked to wax nostalgic about what they interpreted as his druggie, hippie ways. (No one knew he was famous; he was just some guy who played the drums all day instead of going to work.) After Corea a single mother lived in The Monkey Bar House with her two blond daughters. Their names escape me now, but I remember they caused quite a stir on the block, what with their youngish, unattached mom, the way they had traveled up-stream against the current of white flight. The white people on the block were all either old, paranoid refusniks, or they were the Stira boys: Tommy, who was otaku-like in his precise study of 70s and 80s black culture (we used to joke he was the blackest person we'd ever met; he's some kind of Muslim now, I hear) and Paul, who was a legendary hacker before he was even grown. In that mix, the two reedy white girls across the street (their mom smoking on the stoop in hip-huggers!) were first exotic, then (once they'd moved on) legendary as "The Last New White People Ever." It would be 30 years before any new white folks moved onto the block, and those people turned out to not even be real neighbors, being instead some bizarre church group that took over a house for a year in order to store visiting Xtians.

The Abandoned stayed abandoned until the 90s or so, but the whole thing came apart when the house became infested by rats in the early 80s. It was like the house knew Reagan was president, that you could buy crack up on Linden Blvd 6-10 blocks away, that something thick and miasmic had been loosed in the city. Trips into the Abandoned got more infrequent, more violent and illicit. Every now and then strange kids from around the block would infiltrate it through a hole in a back fence, raising the troubling specter of being caught out alone on your own block. Instead of functioning as a boyish resource, the Abandoned started fueling strange, previously unheard of talk about needing to protect ourselves, about needing to teach those bitch motherfuckers from 228 various lessons. Empty movie and record dialogue, really, which had, all the same, jumped right off the screens and turntables and into our mouths. Despite our ritual rehearsal of the lines for fit and appropriateness, nothing bad ever happened to anyone on my tier, but Keith, one of the boys in my younger sister's cohort, was stabbed to death in 1997 on his front stoop, right across the street from the Abandoned. By then it was no longer "the Abandoned," it was Mr. Pete's house. Mr. Pete had bought the place and renovated it, added another floor and made it one of the nicer homes on the block. He was also the one who rushed out into the street that day in 1997 unarmed and waving his hands, chasing the boys who had just murdered Keith away. He must have been asking himself what the hell kind of neighborhood he had moved into.

Nobody lamented the loss of the Abandoned when Mr. Pete bought it, not even the generation of boys directly below mine. Keith's generation was glad to see it go, I think, to see the place filled in by a smiling new neighbor. Their entire lives that house had been nothing but a nest of rats, not one of them had ever lain on their back in its yard and stared up at a sky with a girl, the weeds leaning in protectively around them. I know it's not our fault, but there are times that I feel like me and my friends let those younger kids down. My generation ran around talking a lot of shit on that block, but we had boys 5-10 years older protecting us, letting us round out their teams of touch football. Teaching us to smoke menthols and insisting we settle our differences with each other fair and square, little boxing matches in the middle of the street, with cornermen and shouts of advice, assurances the swelling would go down. But soon after becoming the oldest kids on the block me and mine all either moved or retreated from its life, leaving the care and feeding of its younger denizens to the street itself. I feel like we took all the good and interesting things about growing up in bad old NYC with us. All those stories and eccentrics were gone by the time Keith and his boys hit high school. It's like we'd left them nothing to inherit but the danger.

Posted by ebogjonson in memory, places, on August 28, 2007 2:13 PM

Comments

CAMBRIA HEIGHTS ROCKS TO DEF!!!!!!!Represent the old hood ebog!!!

Posted by: Abdul Jabbar at August 28, 2007 7:44 PM

I love this story.

Posted by: Nanette at August 31, 2007 5:56 PM

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