Six men stare at the side of a building. Each man more out of place than the last. They point at the wall. They smile. They use words like flip, market value, neighborhood, potential, growth. They occasionally mutter words like crash, over-saturated, appraisal, trends. They smile when they say location. Unavoidable, words they don’t like to say here, but words they use regularly in the office or at their homes twenty miles from here, slip out in conversation. Quiet words with loud meanings: gentrification, displacement, demographics, ghetto, housing, improvement.
They point at a wall.
Each man has a job. One is a banker. He is clean, professional, well-reputed, and always interested in a plan that will fail. One is a real estate agent. He is casual, progressive, stylish, self-aware, and confident that this is the place to be. One is from the county zoning office. He is bland, straight-forward, pessimistic, but insistent that lines can be redrawn, zones renamed. One is from a nationwide insurance company that specializes in many things, among them commercial real estate insurance. He is sharp, well-dressed, loquacious, well-educated, from good stock, well-invested, and always suspicious of fire. One is a contractor. He is hard-looking, his skin tanned (not tan, but tanned); he is the only one wearing jeans. He has made enough money to retire, but he has made as many poor financial choices to balance his former successes and will find himself working a little longer. The last man is the buyer, an investor, one who has disposable income in which to invest in the fluidity of the housing market, follows his successes there into the commercial real estate realm, and has recently been convinced of a “new concept.” He is wealthy, conservative, distrusting of insurance men (because he is one), bold, confrontational, and working through his second divorce.
They point at this wall on the backside of an old bar. Everything following is speculative, the rest, if not the whole story, simply true of men like these.
“It’s a shame that no one saw the value of this lot before now,” the banker. He really wishes that someone had been stupid enough to buy this lot ten years ago and watch the market crash, foreclose, or short sale the property. He would have been clever enough to make a lot of money in such an instance.
“I’m glad they didn’t,” the real estate agent. He likes profit and clever market manipulations to fall only into his stable.
“Yeah, this neighborhood has been in the dump for a while,” the city employee. “I always wish that I bought a house in one of these neighborhoods that are flipping. Couldn’t afford it then; definitely can’t afford it now.”
“We can talk about that, brother,” the banker.
Everyone hushes at the mention of the word, the word that used to be one of the only familiar names given in this neighborhood, the word that none of these white men use save in church, brother.
The contractor doesn’t give two shits about offending anyone. He already got the bid. He employs illegal immigrants with no hesitance. He breaks the awkward silence with pure fact: “This will all have to be regraded. We’ll have to take all them trees down—except for the magnolia. The existing structure is better off leveled, but if you insist on working with it, we can work that in.”
“I think it would be cool to encase that wall in some sort of lacquer,” the real estate agent. “Like a clear coat that will preserve the wall. It would be like saying, ‘This is what this neighborhood used to be like.’ Or at least it would be like repping the old days.”
At this point, no one cares what the real estate guy says, he has already brokered the deal and is only present because the buyer likes him and they both want to see the street with a “future” lens so that they can clean out the rest of the opportunities on the street before anyone else.
“Can you believe it used to be like this in here,” the banker, pointing at the wall.
“It really is unbelievable. All this good property let to waste,” the insurance man.
“I can’t believe the owner of this building didn’t shoot these vandals,” the buyer.
“Do you think we could commission someone to make this wall match that wall,” the real estate agent.
“Not gonna happen,” the city employee. “They are trying to limit that kind of stuff.”
“It is such a remarkable display of ‘culture’ and ‘art’ that the city can’t deny its value in the development of these neighborhoods. In fact, it might be in the best interest of the city to start repatriating folks tossed out to the peripheries of the city. Don’t want it too homogenous in here,” the insurance guy.
The buyer: “Yeah, that’s interesting.” Then quickly dismissing the question of peripheries and homogeneity: “Are there any schools near here? I’ve been trying to convince friends to buy down here. Too many of them have kids. Not many takers.”
The banker: “Really everything below Marrs Road is risky business. Especially the schools. Well, the schools, the buyers, no offence, and well, to be frank, your car windows, etc.”
Everyone hates to allow unchallenged bias, especially if they know themselves to be opposed yet right. And so, the real estate agent pipes in: “Well, we can’t forget that these are people. Most just wanna sell that house for a profit, am I right? And maybe they are tired of having their windows broken.”
“It’s systemic failure. It’s years of failure,” the city employee. “I do hear rumors of banks doing some sort of, um, you know, choosing, some sort of, um, vetting process, that’s it, for loans and other bank-related stuff.”
“Can’t trust what you hear from other city employees, brother,” the banker.
They all awkwardly readjust their sight towards the wall again.
The contractor: “Well, let’s break ground Monday the 17th. Sound good, bank man? City man? Insurance? We all good here? I gotta take a shit.”
Without answer, the contractor walks back to his truck. A man walks past him from the back alley. The man approaches the group and says: “Who lives here?”
They all ruffle up and the insurance man selects himself as representative: “Hey, man. So…yeah, we are trying to do some business here. Can I help you with anything?”
The man looks around: “No.”
“OK, we gotta do business here—” the banker cut off by the real estate agent before he says the word. The agent: “Thanks!”
The man: “Who’s that?” He points at the contractor’s truck as it leaves the parking lot.
The buyer: “He’s the builder.”
The man: “I need a job. He hiring?”
The buyer: “Check with him next time he’s here. Not sure though.”
The man: “You hiring?”
The buyer: “What do you have experience in?”
The man: “Dish pits mainly. But I used to work at a place that installed radios, CD players, and DVD players into cars. But my last job was on site down on Memorial. Cleaning up sites. So, yeah, you could say I got experience.”
“Well, not in much,” the banker.
“I’ll tell him you asked,” the buyer, knowing he won’t—these promises are really attempts to shuck an unwanted feeling or person.
The man: “Well, I’m going to my Mimi’s. She lives there.” He points to a slightly decaying shotgun-style house on a nice lot: two big oak trees, a quarter-acre backyard, fenced in, front porch, back porch, probably 2B/2B, chimney (working fireplace?), and best of all, it’s four houses down from the spot they are standing. Location, location, location.
“How long has Mimi lived there?” the real estate agent familiarly.
“She own the house?” the banker abruptly.
“She needs to address that pile of trash,” the city employee curtly.
The man to the wall: “Eighty-seven.”
“That the year this bar opened or her age?” the buyer with a laugh.
“Her age,” the man with distrust. “This bar opened in Seventy-Nine.”
“‘Bout time for change, wouldn’t ya say?” the banker.
“Not to be insensitive, does your Mimi have life insurance? If so, and if not, I’d be happy to tell you about some options that could benefit you. You know, I’ve always loved this neighborhood,” the insurance salesman.
“Well, depends on which side,” the man. “On that side, they used to be a bunch of gays and sinister sorts, inbreds, looking real messed up. On this side, your typical church burnings, lynchings, shootings, stabbings. But much better barbecue. Y’all opening a barbecue joint?”
“It’s a barbecue concept,” the buyer carefully.
“That’d be nice. The closest is now way down Memorial,” the man; he doesn’t understand that it won’t be in his price range. “We look forward to it.”
As he walks away, the real estate guy: “I gotta get my hands on that house.”
And he does; and they will. They get every parcel of land they can find. They are taking every building of every condition and they aim to make money. The local populations spread to the extremities of the cities (less of a threat the thinner they spread?). The only remaining artists are those who found success twenty years ago. The only restaurants still open are below the standards of those who spend more than five dollars a meal.
The neighborhood slowly turns into another neighborhood.
But as five men stare at the side of the building that they hope to make a profit off of, they do so without recognizing that the graffiti sprayed up and down the side of the building is only a small version of a protest that cannot and will never be lacquered, painted over, or renovated.
After graduating from the University of Georgia with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fisheries and wildlife, Gresham Cash started a band and began composing scores for short films. He is currently in post-production on his first full-length documentary. Aside from writing articles for local arts and culture publications, he works as the contributing editor of The Seed & Plate.