Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

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As a current Portland resident, This Side of Home is an especially relevant book for me to have read. The block I live on is currently undergoing gentrification, the main difference being that my neighborhood isn’t a historically black neighborhood and (as far as I’m aware), most of the residents are white. As of now, historically black neighborhoods in Northeast and North Portland are almost entirely filled with white residents and white-owned businesses, and many of those neighborhood’s former residents have been forced by escalating property values and raised rents to move to East Portland, and further and further away from the city proper.

Maya and Nikki are twin sisters who are as close as close can be. They, along with their best friend Essence, live on Jackson Avenue, a historically black (and fictitious) street in NE Portland that has a reputation for crime and low performance statistics. Over the past couple years, their neighborhood has been transforming—nicer businesses have been moving in, along with new white neighbors. Maya is angry at how the influx of these fancy, white-owned businesses is causing the displacement of her neighbors, including Essence and her mom, and doesn’t understand how Nikki can enjoy going to these new places. As Maya and Nikki enter their senior year at Jackson High, each of them confront the specter of change hovering over them and grapple with what the future will hold for their neighborhood and their own lives after high school.

As mentioned above, the issue of gentrification is an immediate one, not just in Portland, but in cities all across the country. This Side of Home does a fantastic job of demonstrating both the acts of gentrification and what effects it has on a neighborhood. I really liked some of the more subtle details, such as when Maya is peeking at her new white neighbor who’s putting up posters in what used to be Essence’s room before the landlord evicted them and renovated the house. She remembers how Essence put up posters specifically to hide all the chips and cracks that used to be in the wall, something this neighbor doesn’t need to do. It’s a little detail that encapsulates multiple issues to unpack surrounding who developers and businesses consider to be “part of the neighborhood” and who “deserves” to have access to nice houses and businesses.

That question lies at the heart of Maya and Nikki’s divide over gentrification. Maya’s anger stems from the fact that the new restaurants and stores and the fixing-up of houses like Essence’s old house aren’t for her and the current black residents, but for white people. In protest, Maya refuses to support them when they’re making her feel like she doesn’t belong in her own neighborhood, whereas Nikki feels the opposite. Giving these places her patronage is her way of making a statement, both to them and to herself, that she deserves to enjoy these establishments just as much white people. She’s allowed to be there—it’s herneighborhood, after all. I loved how Renée Watson developed their opposing viewpoints, as well as Maya’s painful feelings over what she sees as her disintegrating relationship with her sister.

Structurally, I also loved how Watson fit gentrification into the story’s larger theme of change, both good and bad, and how best to respond to it. These changes range from the principal’s changes to Jackson High traditions to Maya, Nikki, and Essence’s plans for the future after high school. Like with gentrification, these changes aren’t posed as simply “good” or “bad” changes, but are positioned as crossroads where Maya needs to figure out what her response will be in the face of these changes. The issues themselves regarding racism, classism, respectability politics, “reverse” discrimination, and historical erasure are presented as multifaceted and part and parcel of Maya’s journey. There are places where it gets a touch too “teach-y,” but the strength of Maya’s voice and her mental landscape help to offset that.

I did have some quibbles.  Maya’s budding romance with the new white neighbor Tony wasn’t particularly interesting outside their mutual unease of letting their friends and family know about being in an interracial relationship. Their relationship fit in well thematically, as it brought up questions about whether things have really changed if both of them know their parents or their friends will react negatively that a white boy and black girl are dating, and whether Maya’s feelings for Tony mean that *she* is changing too, and not just Nikki. Feelings-wise though, their romance felt like the kind where I was supposed to believe they liked each other because the narrative said so. There were also some structural problems the shortness of the chapters (3-5 pages on average) made the narrative feel choppy, and for the last quarter or so of the story felt crammed with way too many story threads, which meant none of them felt like they got enough attention.

This Side of Home ends on a bittersweet but affirming note—context matters. Stories matter. Maya, Nikki, and their friends make inroads towards shining a spotlight on a more positive history of Jackson Avenue and its community. And the businesses and new neighbors? They too can maybe be a part of the community someday if they make the effort on their part to reach out and  truly be a part of the community they moved into. This Side of Home a well-written, thought-provoking story about an every-day reality not typically acknowledged in popular fiction. It’s the kind of book I hope ends up on school syllabi and encourages conversations between teenagers and adults.

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