William Morrow Paperbacks, 368 pages, $16.99
“When No One Is Watching” is a book that starts off with so many wonderful and provocative elements. The protagonist is a young woman having a hard time. She has gone through a divorce and some sort of hospitalization. She recently moved back from Seattle to live with her mother in the family home in Brooklyn. And her mother is very ill and in a care facility. Bills are mounting, although she has some sort of admin job at the local public school. Sydney Green is in trouble.
Sydney’s neighborhood is especially tight, neighbors know neighbors, know grandparents, children, grandchildren, take care of one another, greet each other at the corner bodega. Gifford Place is an old Black section of Brooklyn. It has history in its bones, laid on top of older bones of the rich, white Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and probably laid on top of the even more ancient bones of the Lenape. But Gifford Place has been Black a long time. Then gentrification brings in new buyers of old homes, let go by old-time people who couldn’t refuse the offer. The new buyers are white. The old, notorious derelict hospital down the street is also being re-purposed. A drug research company wants to put in a shiny, new facility. Just what a nice residential neighborhood needs, right? In the wake of future prospects come real estate agents looking for a good deal, more police drive-bys for "security" reasons, a walking tour of the history of the white people who once owned the homes, and the potential for higher taxes and shenanigans.
Theo is one of the white people who moved into the house across the street from Sydney. His rich girlfriend — soon to be his ex-girlfriend — bought it. Theo tossed his meager savings into the home, just before his relationship went far, far, far south. He knows his days as an occupant are numbered. In the meantime, since he is unemployed as well, he peeks out his window at the movement and rhythm of the neighborhood. He is especially struck by Sydney. He volunteers to help her do research into the area so she can start her own Black history-based walking tour, having been disgusted by the “white” walking tour she joined. Things being things, Sydney and Theo (“Ebony” and “Ivory,” as a neighbor teases them), after the traditional prickly start, learn to work and flirt together.
When Sydney and Theo wander the neighborhood, talk to older residents, check source material and museum exhibits, the story is illuminating and fascinating. It is a real problem when neighborhoods are gentrified. Older residents are displaced not just from their homes but from their community. If the issue of minorities being replaced by whites also is part of the picture, then it also becomes part of the issue we Americans are facing now, the diminishment in value of minorities. If you have to struggle to get jobs, find homes, get an education, childcare, an equitable salary because you are a minority, then it becomes harder to compete for homes which are escalating in value and taxes.
It could be a powerful look at the issues currently part of our national focus. And it starts off that way. But the author intends to bring you a thriller, so the story veers off. It’s about the advantage powerful white corporations take of powerless minorities, but it also becomes Robin Cook/“Mission Impossible”/“Get Out.” I would have liked a more subdued story. The point of neighborhood displacement would have carried a bigger punch.
Even though it was not the book I hoped I was reading, it’s still worthwhile. I was captured by Sydney’s pain and sorrow. She had so many problems, which she tried to solve, but the deck was stacked against her and her mental fragility weighed her down. Theo is an unlikely assistant. The best part of the book was when he thought it would be cool to wear a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. Uh. No.