Barlowe Reed, when he turns forty, decids that maybe the girlfriend who kicked him out of her life for what she saw in him as a lack of ambition just might be right about him. Despite having worked for years at a steady job as a printer, he has little to show for his efforts, and he decides that it’s time for him to buy the house that he’s been renting for so long in Dr. Martin Luther King’s old neighborhood, Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. He thinks he might be able to swing it if he can save up a down payment, and if his twenty-something nephew continues to live with him and pay his share of the rent. What Barlowe doesn’t count on is a whole bunch of Them, young white couples looking for bargain-priced housing that they can afford to improve, to move into the neighborhood and drive up the price of the house he wants to buy.
Nathan McCall’s debut novel is a timely reminder that the gentrification of older, urban neighborhoods is not necessarily a good thing for everyone impacted by the change. The book is filled with memorable characters, white and black, through whose eyes the reader comes to understand both the motives of those who seek to change the nature of older neighborhoods and those who feel that they are being squeezed out of their homes by others seeking to exploit an opportunity to profit at their expense.
Barlowe Reed would love nothing better than to spend the rest of his life living in the Old Fourth Ward, but he is shocked to suddenly find himself with white next-door neighbors when Sean and Sandy Gilmore move into the neighborhood. But when Sandy Gilmore makes an effort to befriend Barlowe despite her husband’s refusal to do so, Barlowe reluctantly decides to give it a try, hoping that he can limit contact with her to chats across the backyard fence they share.
Before too long, though, there are so many of Them in the neighborhood that things begin to change. The oldest business in the neighborhood is replaced by a fancy new coffee shop, gardening awards are all going to white couples who pay someone to do the work for them, the neighborhood council is taken over by white officers, and private security services are hired to patrol the streets. None of this is appreciated by the ward’s original residents, and tensions split the neighborhood along racial lines to the extent that white residents have their mailboxes set on fire and bricks thrown through their windows.
McCall tells his story largely through the eyes of Barlowe Reed and Sandy Gilmore, two very different people doomed to never understand each other despite their best efforts. Them, at times a comedy of errors, is at heart a rather grim novel offering little real hope that a mixing of the races in America’s inner cities will be easy for either side. It does not place blame on either side but, as Barlowe told once told Sandy, there might just be too much “water.” Who knows? Maybe, just maybe in the long run, gentrification of some inner-city streets might turn out to be one way to drain some of that water from under the bridge. We can hope.