The calloused man on the chair in front of me uncrossed his ankles, leaned forward and looked me dead in the eyes. The silence lingered a second as his gaze dug into me. I swallowed.  Something I’d said caught his attention. After two hours of interviewing one of North Highlands’ older residents, it was my turn to answer questions.

“What you mean you’ve never been in a fight?” he drew out in a smooth, low breath.

“I mean, I’ve never been in a physical fight. Just arguments.”

Security comes in many different forms in this neighborhood.

He leaned back again and rubbed the graying whiskers on his chin, trying to figure what to make of my statement. Nelson* is basically the Godfather of the hood…minus participation in organized crime. He sees all. He already knew about me before we met, although he admits he thought I was in the neighborhood to buy drugs. Nothing shocks Nelson apart from the fact that I’ve never been in a fight.

“Nobody ever punched you? You never had a boyfriend that smacked you around?” he asked like it was as normal as riding a bike.

“No.” I emphasized, feeling a little indignant towards the question.

I’ve had quite a few run-ins with angry dogs these days…most of them (thankfully) are trapped behind fences.

He looked me up and down one more time and decided I’d told him the truth. Then a half-smile picked up one corner of his mouth.

“That’s right. You’s from a nice neighborhood, right? See, I’ve never met anybody who hasn’t been in a fight.”

Are you Lost?

The space between our chairs seemed to triple in size. His assertion just reminded me (again) that I’ve been raised in a different culture. The streets around North Highlands have seen the spectrum of violence, from domestic abuse to drive-by shootings and gang turf wars.

I walk around this neighborhood every day, and the response makes me nervous. More often than not, someone will stop their car and ask if I need a ride because I must be lost or broken down. Recreational walking isn’t unheard of here, but it’s still sort of a novelty. This is definitely the kind of place where your mama tells you not to walk alone.

But people live here. What is quality of life like for kids who are scared to play in the park? Or for people who’ve narrowly escaped stray bullets that break through their windows?

The population of the neighborhood changes often.

As a positive force of change in the hood, Mustard Seed Development is addressing neighborhood security. They’ve met with police and coordinated community events in public spaces like the park, but their most transformational tool addresses something foundational to the whole situation: home ownership.

Ownership

When you’re living on a shoe string, life becomes pretty transient—most residents of the 73114 zip code rent homes and move in and out frequently. As Nelson explains it, nobody cares about what’s not theirs. People who rent homes are less likely to call the police and report a crime, and they’re more likely to engage in destructive activities.

What happens when you make home ownership attainable for residents? Well, North Highlands has started to see the benefits of the vigilance and accountability that comes with  new home owners like Marsha.

“Well, I never thought I’d own a home,” the lively woman told me across her family room, “but sometimes, you just need faith the size of a mustard seed!”

The majority of houses are rented, causing high neighbor turnover.

Marsha has worked in different fields throughout her life, but even with steady employment, she thought the idea of home ownership seemed too expensive and intimidating. Six years ago, she met Dan, director of Mustard Seed, who proposed the idea of buying a home to her. Dan directed Marsha to a local Mustard Seed seminar for residents wanting to walk through the home ownership process.

Now after attending classes that taught her about taking out a loan and other aspects of the home buying process, Marsha owns her own comfortable home. She’s already changed the paint colors, nailed things into the walls and made alterations dozens of times…namely to make up for years of living with stringent renter rules. As much as Marsha loves her house, she may love her neighbors even more.

Not Here

Nelson has been a significant help to Marsha. He helps her along with his other neighbors—making repairs, building bikes for kids and keeping an eye on things. Nelson tells me that this area isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. At least here, on these blocks—people are too invested to put up with anything fishy.

“That’s what’ll change any area,” Marsha tells me, “you gotta take it over and say you’re not doin’ that here!

Marsha, outside of her very own home in North Highlands.

With each home occupied by a homeowner, 73114 gets a little closer to being a secure place to live. Mustard Seed encourages people to look into the benefits of investing in a home and helps them work toward the goal of one day becoming home owners. As a part of their plan, they’re even contracting developers to build affordable homes on empty lots in the neighborhood that will be available for ownership instead of renting.

Maybe ten years from now, if I walk down the same streets in North Highlands fewer people will think I’m lost (or looking to buy drugs). Maybe there’ll be more kids riding bikes or groups of neighbors playing dominoes like they do a few blocks from Nelson’s house.

It’s already better than it was. Mustard Seed and their neighbors in 73114 are building a neighborhood where it’s possible to house a family with limited income and keep them safe as well. More importantly, they’re building a community where—despite being separated by guard dogs and chain link fences—neighbors like Marsha, Nelson and countless others share life together.

*Name has been changed

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Next Steps
    • Pray for the neighbors of 73114 and other neighborhoods around the world that are working towards living in community.
    • Think about your own neighbors. Does anyone in your area “lean” on you for anything, or you on them? Our culture tends to shy away from interdependence—what are the benefits and shortcomings of living so independently?
    • Make some banana bread for a neighbor you haven’t met yet. It’s a great way to break the ice.
    • Learn more about the values and actions of Mustard Seed Development from their website. Consider financially supporting what they do in Oklahoma City!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    March 9th, 2012 at 11:08 am  

    Wake up call…”I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t been in a fight”. And with that, I realize again who I am and where I am and what I do not know. Thank you Laura!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      March 9th, 2012 at 2:58 pm  

      No problem, Dave. Nelson had quite a few insights and perspectives that really shook me, especially since we live in the same country. We have so much to learn from each other.

  2. Carol McCain said... 

    Reply

    March 16th, 2012 at 11:49 pm  

    Hey, Laura! Great story! Thank you for making Mustard Seed and our home in North Highlands your home and “world next door.” Thank you sooooo much for sharing and for opening the eyes of the people that don’t stay here or spend time with us. Every city has a story…thank you for helping tell our story…and thank you for the cookies you sent us (the “healthy” ones!) I ate all of them….love, blessings and safety to you….Carol P.S. “Greater things are still to come and greater things are still to be done in this city…”

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      March 23rd, 2012 at 6:20 pm  

      Carol, it’s so great to see your feedback on these articles–your love for your friends and neighbors is such an example to all of us. Thanks for taking me in and showing me what a “joyful giver” really looks like :)

  3. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    March 17th, 2012 at 6:55 pm  

    Laura, I love to read a story like this. When I travel through a neighborhood that is in transition, I love the look of “resettlement”, or 21st century “homesteading” of sorts.

    Then I am able to I travel in boarded up neighborhoods I be hopeful. I look around and see what can be rather than what is.

    Love this article.

  4. Jeff Wolf said... 

    Reply

    February 7th, 2017 at 8:36 am  

    Laura, I have been in both chairs in a variety of “interviews ” and didn’t always know it at the time. I happened across your story and it gave me a good insight for an interview I have lived my whole life–and didn’t know it at the time. Thank you for your story and how it shaped a coming decision as I now see what my part is, and was. I can help me by helping them, everything for a reason.

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