Zenith Rising: A Story for Our Times

This is America?

By the time Narrows got back to the office, all the elation had been drained out of his system. To say it hadn’t been a pleasant trip was beyond understatement. On the way to the airport, Ted had been unrelenting in his pessimism. He went on about visiting his grandfather’s house and seeing the blight creeping up the hill. "Mark my words, Burt. In five years, Floral Heights’ll be a slum."

The sad thing was, he couldn’t argue. The Arizonan’s bleak outlook affected him, and the return trip did nothing to improve his outlook. After deciding to see for himself, Narrows left the Belham Expressway at Zenith’s eastern boundary and cut across the city on surface streets. At first it didn’t look so bad. Perryman Avenue was lined with shops and offices, and restaurants doing a good midday business. There were plenty of late model cars on the street, driven by middle class whites and blacks. Down side streets he could see well-maintained brick bungalows and stucco split-level ranches. Maybe Ted had been overly bleak.

Then Narrows noticed the profusion of For Sale signs. He detoured down a side street. There were four or five to a block, and even more disturbing, about three-quarters of them read, "For Sale By Owner." A bad sign indeed. Now, it could have meant nothing more than a lot of frugal homeowners seeking to avoid paying commissions, but such a preponderance usually was a sign that Realtors either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, move them.

On closer inspection some of the houses showed telltale signs of neglect. Paint peeling under the eaves, cracked windows taped instead of replaced, porch railings out of plumb, the occasional sagging roof. It wasn’t every house, not even a majority, and none of those for sale, but it meant a neighborhood in transition.

When Narrows returned to Perryman Avenue, he noticed the iron accordion gates, the broken parking meters and the garbage piling up alongside the stores. Now there was a preponderance of liquor stores and convenience shops, many of whose windows were covered with plywood painted a garish orange or yellow. Fast food chains had replaced family restaurants, major grocery store chains were nonexistent, and churches occupied abandoned bank branches. Small businesses, service, legal and medical practices stood vacant. There were fewer cars, and those parked at the curb were older, with dents, broken tail lights, or rust-eaten fenders.

Where Perryman jogged southwest towards downtown, Narrows continued west along Douglass. Now he was entering unfamiliar territory. Douglass wasn’t as wide as Perryman, and was primarily residential, or had been in happier days. Now at least every third house was missing, replaced by a rubble-strewn lot. Some blocks were completely gutted. Virtually all the remaining houses were in a state of disrepair. Porches had either collapsed or were supported by precariously tilted posts. Most houses had broken windows. They were covered with plywood or plastic, or simply ignored, their jagged edges revealing darkened interiors.

The wind began to blow harder as Narrows drove along. It pushed old newspapers, McDonalds wrappers and dead leaves down broken gutters and through gaps in the rows of houses. He passed skeletons without windows and doors, and burned-out shells. Their roofs were gone, their walls sagged. They were collapsing in on themselves like black holes, sucking light and life from the city.

An occasional solid, well-maintained home shone like a distant beacon. But when he got closer he saw a homestead cowering behind a chainlink fence. Windows and doors were barricaded, and Rottweilers hurled themselves at the fence as he passed.

A chilly rain began to fall, as if the city had already used up its quota of decent weather. People clustered around tire- and windowless cars at the curb. Others gathered on decrepit porches, or tortured mangy dogs in the lots. They stared at him as he passed, and Narrows wasn’t seeing a lot of love.

They didn’t notice the rain. They continued to loiter on the sidewalks, tipping back bottles of Thunderbird or Colt 45. Toddlers, and infants clad only in diapers, whose whiteness stood in sharp contrast to their skin, knelt or squatted on hillocks containing rubble from the house which once had stood there. They were strangely silent as they played in the dirt and the mud puddles, crouching next to blackened mounds of unmelted snow.

Narrows felt very tired, worn out, old. He kept repeating, "This is America." As he approached a black Cadillac Escalade, his mirror began vibrating from the bass throbbing from its radio. He stared at it, wondering how they could stand the noise. A door opened, a kid stepped out, hands buried in the pouch of his hoodie. He glared at Narrows and stepped in front of the car. Narrows hit the brakes, and stopped inches from the boy. The other doors popped open on the Escalade, pouring other youths onto the street. Narrows slammed the car into reverse and raced back to the corner, expecting a hail of bullets to shatter his windshield. He slithered around the corner, then put it in drive and sped away.

Two blocks further on he turned left, and hurried down the potholed street, his car’s suspension shrieking in horror at the abuse. After a few blocks, he turned left again, hoping to get back to Douglass, and to make his way back to civilization. But the street deadended in the middle of the block, in front of a rusted chain link fence surrounding what once had been a grassy expanse. There was a building there. It looked like a hospital, but it was empty, abandoned like everything else in this godforsaken corner of the nation. Windows were broken. The siding had torn loose in spots, and hung like giant sheets of fabric from the skeletal remains. Narrows made a u-turn and headed back to the nameless street. He drove on, hoping to find a major road which would speed him out of this Third World nation which had mysteriously been planted in the middle of his city. Up ahead was a traffic light. He peered at the sign but didn’t recognize the name.

Narrows knew Zenith better than most native Zenithites of his acquaintance, so it came as a shock to realize he was lost, to realize that he’d never really seen the city before. He’d spent twelve years here island hopping, darting from one enclave to another. The poverty had been a blur zipping past the freeway at sixty miles an hour, or glimpsed briefly in the Metro pages of "The Zenith News." Now he was lost in Zenith, and he realized he would be, even if he knew where he was.

After another mile or two the houses gave way to several acres of empty land. There was a gridwork of streets, and he could see sidewalks between the dead, dry stalks of weeds and tall brown grass. There were streetlamps and fire hydrants, and here and there a driveway, but there were no houses. It reminded him of a failed development he’d seen outside San Francisco once. The developers had put in all the capital improvements before running out of money, leaving a network of winding lanes and sidewalks sprawled across a hillside in the golden summer grass. The difference here was there had actually been houses once. He saw an occasional pile of broken bricks or fire-scarred lumber. Other than that, nothing. Was this one of Mayor Brown’s grandiose schemes which Rob Patterson had scuttled, or had years of neglect consumed an entire neighborhood, leaving only the broken skeleton behind?

Further along he came to a series of dingy brick towers surrounded by sprawling two-story apartment blocks. This must be the Douglass Projects. It was the kind of place you read about but never saw. You had no reason to go there. They’d been built in the late forties as temporary housing for the thousands of returning soldiers. Over the years they had become a sort of municipal landmark because of the stream of boxers, football players and entertainers who’d grown up there. In each case, the Douglass Projects loomed large in their bios, feel good stories about a talented kid beating the odds and escaping to make a success of things. And it was true. True and tragic, because for every talented kid who climbed out there were dozens, or hundreds who couldn’t find a rung. Those were the ones whose only hope of getting their names in the papers were in the reports of the sensational murders, rapes and drug-related shootouts which occurred there.

Narrows was startled to think these buildings were only fifty years old. They looked like they’d been around at least as long as Ted’s fur trading center, and had been neglected nearly that long. All up and down the towers were black streaks where fire had gutted a flat. In one tower it looked like the top five floors were vacant. Hundreds of windows were boarded up throughout the projects. There were swing sets without swings and rusted monkey bars; basketball courts without hoops, with weeds sprouting in the cracked asphalt. There were parking lots without cars, benches without seats, apartments without light; a ghostly presence without a future.

Beyond the projects was more emptiness, then a half-dozen blocks studded with fieldstone mansions. They had slate-covered mansard roofs, ornate stonework around the chimneys, doors and windows, gingerbread wrought iron trim on the eaves and along the eight-foot high fences and gates. They were massive homes, still in good structural condition despite their age and neglect. They were without exception, empty and unowned.

Narrows drove past the haunted relics into a block of abandoned grocery stores, and restaurants in the shape of pagodas. It was Zenith’s Chinatown. He’d never even known the city had had one. His treasured travel books made frequent mention of the ubiquitous Chinese merchants and hoteliers. The intrepid traveler emerged on foot from the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of Africa, or the rugged, barren mountains of South America, to find a village consisting of a half-dozen primitive huts, a handful of chickens scratching in the dust, a solitary pig sprawled in the shade, and a Chinese man tending bar or minding the shop. They ran businesses in the most godforsaken corners of the earth, yet even the Chinese had abandoned Zenith.

It was with relief that Narrows finally reached Wellington Boulevard. He fled north past empty warehouses, past the tenacious pioneering spirit around Zenith University, the tired elegance of the Cultural Center, the hard-bitten, disease-ridden whores along the Strip, the overgrown greenery of Willard Park, the armed-camp vigilance of Percy Woods Estates. The other side of Percy Woods, Narrows crossed Grayson Way, and burst into the serenity and security of Crystal Heights. Never had the suburbs looked so good, and that thought, even more than anything he’d seen, depressed him.

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