What Does It Mean To Be A Neighbor?

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One City, Many Voices

By Jeff Klein

Sixteen years ago, I moved to Detroit. Eleven years ago, I bought a house in a neighborhood called Briggs. Nowadays, if any of you know my neighborhood you’re more likely to know it as North Corktown. I am 39 years old, grew up in Huntington Woods and moved to Detroit after I graduated college to be a rock star. Although I did not become a rock star, I’ve remained a Detroiter. I found my home in Detroit because it offered me experiences, sensitivity, insight and a sense of community that I had not similarly felt in my suburban upbringing. In fact, I did not even know I was looking for it.

The Briggs neighborhood was foreign to me except that I traveled through it often. When I chose to live there, I knew no one. What drew me to this neighborhood was its proximity and accessibility to many places where I worked and played. I chose my home because of the landscape. I always told people, “I want to live in the country but 10 minutes from the city.”

With a large school field across the street and only one other home on my block, I had found the place I was looking for. Having neighbors was not important to me. I was looking for a place I could play my music loudly and enjoy the company of friends and family and work on my landscape in a virtually isolated setting, or so I thought.

As I contemplated the purchase of my home, I had my first experience with the person who was going to be my closest neighbor. Let’s call him Ray. Our first encounter for me was uncomfortable at best.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ray one afternoon while I was taking a tour of the house before making an offer. Ray was in the yard working. He is a white man in his late 70s with a thick Southern accent and a physical stature that showed he was a working-class man who had found his comforts in staying active. So on this day, while looking at my future home, I ventured to the yard thinking I could sneak away from the owner and ask someone living in the neighborhood for some insight.

My first question — and consequently my only question — to Ray was, “What do you think of the price that is being asked for this house?” Ray responded in his thick accent with what sounded like this: “Shoe em doooown.” Truly not understanding what he just said, I asked him again and he replied more emphatically, “Shoe him down!”

This time, not believing what I thought I was hearing but thinking he had said, “Jew him down,” I once again asked. Again he said, “Shoe him down.” At that point I understood what he was saying but in utter disbelief I repeated, “Oh, Jew him down.” And he said, “Yeah, shoe him down!” I thanked him and carried on…

Wow! This was going to be my neighbor.

Well, I figured the homes being the only two on the block were far enough apart that I would not have to deal with Ray much.

This was not the case….

Ray was constantly puttering in my yard, helping fix this or take care of that, and when I would thank him and tell him he did not have to do what he was doing, he would say, “Don’t worry about it; you don’t have to pay me. You work hard. You’re a good neighbor.” In fact, he never asked for anything in return and always offered to do more.

I found it really hard not to appreciate Ray’s help and like this man whose actions did not follow his words in any way. But in those early years, I tried to keep my distance from him and mainly kept to myself when I was at home.

But it was hard to stay away from Ray.

When I started my vegetable garden, the best spot happened to be close to Ray’s fence. So, of course, he would always come over and speak with me, offer me advice from his many years of farming and gardening and provide me access to his tools. Over the years, Ray and I had many talks by the fence. Some uncomfortable, some not. As I listened and contemplated how this man could be so giving on the one hand and yet capable of speaking with such uninformed judgments about human beings on the other, I felt the only way I could carry on a relationship with him was to not just listen or disregard what he was saying, but to engage him in this dialogue. I would ask myself why he said such things. I concluded that Ray was a good-natured person and wonderful neighbor who, by many standards, just did not know any better.

Slowly but surely over the next eight years, Ray changed. He grew and so did I. The lessons I learned and the responsibilities that I could not ignore when speaking with Ray carried a lot of weight in how I was building my professional career, as well as how I related to the people around me, inside and outside my neighborhood.

Through my work, I found myself more and more engaged with communities, designing pocket parks, community gardens and safe places for all people to come together, put down their differences and share experiences. It is not hard to understand why Detroit is known for its urban farming and gardening, and why it is so important as we rebuild our city together. These spaces offer a place for healing and connection, whether it be from our immediate neighbors, those that live a few blocks away, or those from the north, south, east and west of Detroit’s borders looking to make a difference.

The Briggs neighborhood is one filled with diversity of race and culture and economic status. This is one of the reasons I love it here. I recognized that, as different as Ray and I were, I believe we are all looking for the same things: connections to the people around us, acceptance, purpose and to be treated like human beings no matter what we look like or where we come from. What it means to be a neighbor to me goes far beyond my small neighborhood; it extends to neighborhoods all over the country and world and eventually creates the much sought after ideal: community.

Jeff Klein’s story was first shared at the “What Does it Mean to be a Neighbor” event, planned by the Detroit Area Community Leadership Initiative, a Bend the Arc initiative. Klein is a landscape architect, founder and co-owner of the Detroit-based landscape design-build company Classic Landscape, Ltd. and the retail store Detroit Farm and Garden.

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