The evening began like many others. With the kids in bed and my husband out with friends, I settled into the sofa with a bowl of microwave popcorn, cracked my laptop and started tip-tapping.
Then I heard the screams. Screams are not all that unusual in my neighborhood, a 20-block island of gentrification in the second most deprived borough in England. Residents here learn to distinguish the screams of quarreling couples heading home after last call from those of overly stimulated teens out past their bedtime. But tonight’s screams were neither of those.
I stuck my head out the front door and noticed all my neighbors do the same. What we saw was our friend, my next-door neighbor, running after her car as it screeched round the corner and away. Between the shrieks of a frantic mother we learned she’d arrived home by car minutes before, all of her three children asleep in their car seats. She lifted the eldest one out and her husband came out of their house to grab the middle child. As they were walking inside, an opportunist happening by jumped into the car and tore away – not realizing the third and youngest child – a baby of six months – was still inside.
Some neighbors jumped on motorcycles and gave chase; others phoned the police. Squad cars lit up, as did the Twittersphere. The cops who arrived to stand vigil at the house convinced us it would be over in minutes. Nobody in these parts would seriously set out to steal a baby, they said. A car, yes. But once they discovered the precious cargo on board, they’d abandon it and run.
The cops were right. Forty minutes after the first emergency call, they found the car just three blocks away, parked neatly, the slightly startled baby still strapped in.
It all might have been a bad dream if not for the gossip at the school gates the next morning. My neighbors were unwitting celebrities. All of us on the block – from corner to corner – were closer than ever. But I couldn’t help feeling that it was the end of Camelot. My once fervent love for home was starting to fade.
The Incident wasn’t our first brush with local crime, nor would it be our last. Months earlier our car had been stolen from the spot outside our house. Before that, we’d witnessed a rash of smashed car windows. Recently, bicycles have gone missing, and children’s scooters. Two weeks ago, my husband returned from the hardware depot with all the parts on our to-do list, plus a home alarm system.
Yet around the same time, our city councilor launched an improvement project in a plot of disused land around the corner; revoked some drinking licenses at questionable establishments on the main road; and got local officers to patrol the once-scary alleyway nearby. Beautiful new cafes and boutiques opened. More families moved in.
So, do we stay or do we go? If I’d told my mother what I’m telling you, she’d have been on the next flight over to drag us away. I wonder: what would my children say if they could understand?
My husband and I feel this is where we belong. We’re among good friends, among different cultures, within walking distance to restaurants where our children are welcome and playgrounds where there’s always someone familiar to play with. We’ve got world-class museums a bus ride away, views of the river, theatre, architecture.
If we moved to the suburbs, we reason, we’d be miserable. We’d be commuting our lives away. And who can guarantee the suburbs are safer than our slightly spooky neck of the woods?
That said, any more nights like the recent nail-biter and we might be looking into real estate on Wisteria Lane.
What would you do?