Living Right on the “Wrong” Side of Town

When Corbyn Hightower’s financial world fell apart, a ragtag community came together to show how lively neighborhoods grow new livelihoods.
Hightower family photo by Lane Hartwell

Corbyn Hightower and her husband, Larry, created a way of life that combines frugality, creativity, community exchange, and enough paid work to make ends meet.

Photo by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine.

Since the bottom dropped out of the economy in 2008, my family has gone from affluent suburban living to life below the poverty line, in a shabby house in the “wrong” part of town—with no car. We’ve given up most luxuries, and sold many of our possessions. We’ve become admirably “green,” as a benefit of paring down to the simplest needs. We have chickens, a vegetable garden, and a front door that is always open and ready to welcome a neighbor. People often comment on how we are living with a softer impact upon the earth. But if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that the most dramatic changes we have made were those that were forced upon us.

It seems, here, that if we raise our hand and say, “I need this. Can you help?”—our community collectively answers, “Yes.”

There are current circumstances that make poverty easier to weather: The global recession means that people must come up with creative new resources for surviving, and widespread concern about the environment makes simple living admirable.

Not long ago, the thought of going without cable, a car, Internet, and a cool, comfortable home on a hot summer day were unthinkable. As we got rid of these, one by one, we not only survived but actually found glorious benefits hidden in each decision. Our struggles have created stronger, quicker, deeper, and more rewarding bonds with our friends and neighbors. The relationships we now create help us feel more secure in a chaotic world. Our friends are intimately involved with us, and we rely on each other more than we used to. 

A Lively 'Hood
Our half-commercial, half-residential neighborhood is charming in a ragged kind of way, with Bill the tattoo guy across the street; the lawyer’s office with the Asian pear tree next door; the young couple two doors down who never come over without four cold beers for all of us; Puma (yep) the old hippie with the unused boat, yellow paint dull and faded; and the single woman at the corner who smokes cigarettes on the stoop.

New Livelihoods cover image tilted
Get more of Corbyn's story
New Livelihoods
, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.

We share our gardens’ harvests with each other and pass lawn tools back and forth. We borrow friends’ vehicles on rare occasions, and make group Costco trips. Our household has gotten by with no Internet connection thanks to the generosity of neighbors and their Wifi, and the availability of free-floating signals from the library that we can catch on occasion. It seems, here, that if we raise our hand and say, “I need this. Can you help?”—our community collectively answers, “Yes.”

On just one block of residential downtown, we have abundant fruit trees: cherry, apple, pear, Asian pear, orange, almond, apricot, and lemon. When you need rosemary to season your dinner, you wander over to the nearest neighbor who has it growing in front of their house.

The other day, a large family in a minivan parked in front of our house. The doors slid open, and happy, giggling people poured out. They waved at us as we peered through the windows, and began to pick some fruit—not a lot—from our apple and pear trees. It didn’t feel like thievery—there was nothing stealthy about it. We opened the front door, greeted them, and offered our extension ladder. The trees belong to all of us. 

A Watershed Year, With Few Tears Shed

Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken their place is everything we didn’t know we needed.

For us, social resources have proven more valuable to our lives than financial resources. Or rather, when financial resources are less available, social resources fill in the gap in a more rewarding way.

Just being open with our needs has resulted in surprisingly loving connections with those we least expected. Our letter-carrier was reluctant to deliver the foreclosure notice she worried would devastate us, and even suggested we not sign for it. The diner owner sent us on our way after a rare meal out, trusting us to return after our debit card got unexpectedly declined (turns out it was a clerical error, whew.)

Once we took the bus to the supermarket, but found out that the bus we had taken to get there was the last bus running that route, leaving us stranded. There was a moment of regret and frustration with what sometimes feels like a constant barrage of small obstacles—until we realized there were literally half a dozen people who would be able to come scoop us up in an instant, whenever needed.

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I don’t mean to overstate the case. What with our landlord’s foreclosure crisis, a scary era when we were waiting for biopsy results, and some thefts we’ve (thankfully, rarely) endured, there have been threats to safety and security coming from every direction. But it is no exaggeration to say that this has been the watershed year of our lives in the best possible of ways. Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken their place is everything we didn’t know we needed.

The other day, we built new raised beds in our unused driveway. A truck dumped the delivery of beautiful soil into a black and loamy heap on the sidewalk, and neighbors came over with shovels, advice, cold beers, and spare seedlings. We’re all planning for a big harvest trade, maybe a “family” grill-out with all the folks on our ragtag block using the zucchinis soon to come in that  over-abundant way that they do. Our backyard chickens have been loud but prolific, and there are plenty of eggs for us all right now.


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