On Choosing to Live in an Urban Area

It’s a lazy Saturday night, and after a busy day of shopping, cooking, and packing we are firmly settled on the couch with popcorn and The Help. The 10:45 bus pulls up to the stop just in front of our house; the noise drifts up to our windows from the street a story below. We’ve long since learned to ignore the rumble of the engine, the clacking of the opening and closing doors, the mechanical female voice announcing the line and destination. With 4-8 buses an hour, it becomes white noise.

But this time is different. There is the slap of hands against the plastic bus windows, and then the buzz of voices becomes loud and jarring, the young voices yelling and whooping. Great, a group of kids. We lean over the couch arm to peek out the window and the fluorescent lights of the bus illuminate a pair of boys scuffling in the center aisle while rows of teens on either side egg them on and the poor bus driver tries to calm everyone down (or at least get them all off his bus).

The fight spills off the bus and onto our sidewalk as JD and I discuss calling the cops. I walk across the living room to grab my phone when we hear it. Two pops in quick succession, followed by a third ten seconds later. Time slows down in our apartment as the world outside erupts in yells and scrambling. My first impulse, to run to the window and see what’s happened, is overruled by JD’s firm but calm suggestion that we stay back, away from the windows while he calls 911. Nausea rises up in my belly even as the noises outside suggest that no one has been hurt.

Police come quickly, no doubt summoned by a number of calls from our building and the surrounding neighbors. There are at least five cars, and their flashing lights bounce around the walls of our apartment in a disconcertingly playful way. We watch as they question the driver and passengers, search for evidence, and direct traffic away from our street. Whoever had the gun is long since gone.

The teens left in the bus are still loud, laughing and calling to each other. Now that the immediate danger seems to have passed, my attention turns to them. To them, this seems to be No Big Thing. Is that really the case? This event that has invaded my sense of safety and peace of mind, is this just another fight to them? How frequently are their nights peppered with the sound of gunfire? I want to sit each of them down individually, shake them by their shoulders, ask where their parents are and whether they know how thin the line is that separates fun and tragedy.

From here my mind wanders to the what-ifs, where it will remain, unmoved, until a Tylenol PM helps me to quiet it all and drift off to sleep later. For now, I become obsessed with the realization that once JD’s show opens, the timing of this incident coincides almost exactly with the point where he will be walking home from the metro after a Saturday night performance. The cinema of my mind plays out different scenarios of what might have happened if we were not both safe at home, just one story but worlds above the scene unfolding below.

By midnight the street is empty. We wonder if we can call it a shooting. No one was hit, but bullets were certainly fired. I think that maybe we would rather not call it a shooting, regardless. Admitting that there was a shooting right outside our door is an admission that we live in a dangerous neighborhood. We want this incident to simultaneously be out of the ordinary (this kind of thing never happens here!) and perfectly ordinary (just some dumb kids, no big deal). In reality I know it was neither of those things.

We recently had an important decision to make: we considered two rentals, one in DC and one in VA. The latter was a lovely house on a quiet street, close enough to transportation, restaurants, and stores to be perfectly livable. But we couldn’t imagine leaving DC, despite the tyranny of taxation without representation, and will hopefully have a signed lease for a condo nearby our current neighborhood in the next week (more on that in another post). We spent all week feeling justified in our choice as Virginia politics became even more oppressively conservative and we explored and enjoyed the many things we love about our area of DC.

But now we wonder. How high is too high a price to pay for the conveniences of city living?

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3 responses to “On Choosing to Live in an Urban Area

  1. yiiiikes. really great post, but scary. glad the police came quickly, that’s at least one point in favor of your neighborhood right? :-/

  2. Pingback: Revive Day 36: Vitamins and Friends | Grape Soda

  3. Oh that’s so scary. I’m so glad no one was hurt as I can only imagine how terrifying that would have been, though I know your mind goes through every what-if anyway.

    We live in a fairly quiet, residential nook near the city center and like to consider it safe. But within the span of about six months we had a rape and a targeted shooting occur within blocks of our house. Definitely opened my eyes. I still do the things I want and need – like walking the dog at night – but with a bit more awareness.

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