Keep walking: A writer checks in from rattled Seminole Heights

Resisting fear, the neighborhood lights candles.

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click to enlarge Residents walk in Seminole Heights on Sunday night. - Brian D. Frey
Brian D. Frey
Residents walk in Seminole Heights on Sunday night.

I know I heard gunshots.

It was a short burst, poppoppop then pop. They sounded far away, yet clear enough that both my wife and I were certain we heard them. Oh man, we each thought. Gunshots. Then we both fell back asleep.

That was late last Friday night, before news broke of the second of three recent murders in Seminole Heights. The shots we heard do not match any known timeline of the killings. But in the nerve-jangling days that have passed since then, everything gains mortal significance. Every omen. Every single stranger lingering in the street. Every late-night crack and pop.

My house is about six blocks from the place where Benjamin Edward Mitchell was found shot. Just a block further along is the memorial for Anthony Naiboa, and Monica Caridad Hoffa was found six blocks further west. It's a pleasant little neighborhood whose fabric has been pretty well warped in the past two weeks. Bicyclists ride a little faster; pedestrians may not walk at all. Backyard barbecues have been canceled, and yes, the porch lights are most definitely on. Can you blame us? There's a devil around.

This area of Seminole Heights is certainly not without crime, but homicide has not been part of the equation. I could not imagine living in a place where it is a perpetual fact of life, an outcome you are chancing every time you walked to the bus stop at night. The way it would twist at your nerves, corrode your trust in your fellow man. Well, I couldn't imagine it before. Now I guess I can.

It's very much worth noting that, by experiencing these three homicides in the past two weeks, this neighborhood is living through a statistical semblance of what some areas deal with on a regular basis. These deaths have been horribly random and cruelly unexpected — but even in cases where violence is less random, bullets can do unexpected things. Innocent people get caught up. People become paralyzed, and the whole civic life of a place can be smothered. Did you know that four people were shot Friday in a drive-by in Robles Park? No deaths, thank God. But plenty of wounds.

This situation is different than others, sure. This has a certain morbid weirdness. We are reminded of that a lot, maybe more often than we'd like to be. We've been subjected to expert theories which suggest that the murderer is a kind of misguided class warrior, reacting against gentrification. I guess media overheatedness comes with the territory.

But all that'll fade. Hope to God it will pass with no more deaths, no more mayhem. We'll be left with a few painful facts and some badly frayed nerves. We'll be left with three fewer neighbors, and three hurting families to help lift up. In this corner of the city, we'll have a new unwanted understanding of the dangers that can come with simply existing in a given place. That's called empathy.

When we go back to normal, "normal" is going to be a little different than it was before. It's up to us what that will look like. Maybe it'll be more fearful — or maybe it'll be a little more big-hearted, and appreciative of what we do have, and lovingly attentive to our neighbors. People were out walking again last night, holding candles, for the victims' sakes. I hope they never stop.


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