Apartment dwelling culture cannot be easily explained to the uninitiated. There is, after all, more than one reason we call apartment buildings and the units within them a complex.
A complex does not begin as a community; that must be cultivated by tenants who intend to stay awhile. Those who do not speak, who wait until their hallway sounds empty before opening their door cannot quite be considered your neighbors. Those who greet you in the common areas are closer to earning that distinction. They have acknowledged, at least, that you exist. But in apartments, there are other, higher levels one must reach to be called a neighbor.
Neighboring requires intention. It’s knocking to ask the person down the hall if they knew they’d left their keys dangling from the deadbolt. It’s letting them sit in your living room to wait for the super when they lock themselves out. It’s giving them a jump when their car battery stalls. Or keeping an eye and an ear out for their kids, whether they’re home alone or being followed home.
It means not only notifying the people next door of your upcoming party but accepting that they may overhear exactly what goes on in it, and trusting them not to breach the courtesy of advance notice by calling the police for one night’s excessive after-hours noise.
A single apartment building may house two families or twelve or twenty-four, each living beneath separate ceilings, but all living under the same roof. The more we interact with the people who move among us, the longer we live with only our thin walls and flimsy flooring between us, the more accountable we tend to feel to one another.
It should be no wonder, then, that people who share apartment buildings are hesitant to go all-in as neighbors. It could mean anything from experiencing the occasional inconvenience to discovering a week-old corpse.
I’ve been reminded of this in the past two weeks, as the murder of Botham Jean has made its way back into the news cycle. I was unnerved when it first happened, in the way that neighborhood murders always unnerve me. Like when Trayvon Martin was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend in their townhome complex and found himself in a fatal scuffle with someone purporting himself to be neighborhood patrol. Or when Jonathan Ferrell stopped in an innocuous-looking neighborhood for help after a car accident and found himself bleeding out on the lawn of the home where he’d knocked for help. Or when Renisha McBride, another person asking for help in a nice neighborhood, was killed with a gunshot through a door the owner wouldn’t even open to her. Or when, not too far from where I live in Baltimore County, police killed Korryn Gaines, a young mother and injured her five-year-old son, when she refused to open her door to them, because they wouldn’t state the reason for their visit.
In every one of those cases, some small reported detail is often what moves me. The detail is what moves us all: the Skittles, the hole in the door, the presence of a baby.
With Botham Jean, the details come second to the setting. That it happened in his apartment, at the hands of a woman who called herself his neighbor, is what haunts me most this time.
I was born to an apartment, which is to say that my mother brought me home to the one where she was living with her mother. I was raised in a series of Baltimore apartment buildings. We didn’t live in a house until my senior year of high school when my mother and her husband bought a townhome. Even then, we were attached to the young white couple in the unit beside us. For the first time, I was living in a home had three floors, including a finished basement, but we could still hear that couple playing “Rapper’s Delight” at their housewarming, through the wall that adjoined us.
Homes so connected lend themselves to reluctant intimacy. In a neighborhood of standalone homes, for instance, you may know the husband next door quarreled with his wife. In an apartment, you know what they argued about, know it well enough, in fact, to take a side.
I have seen affairs carried on in apartments, have watched a lovestruck teen sneak a grown man in and out of her home before her parents were due back from work at 6 o’clock, have fielded accusations after she was caught and, in her panic, used me, the girl up on the third floor, as her alibi. I’ve overheard a mother beating her four-year-old, the accompanying lecture suggesting to me that the punishment was wildly disproportionate to the kindergarten crime.
I have spent years in apartments wondering what is and is not my business.
But I have never seen a woman enter the wrong apartment and shoot the rightful tenant eating ice cream in his living room. As identical as our front doors often look, I’ve rarely known a neighbor to mistake someone else’s for theirs. Whether drunk or high or delirious with third-shift exhaustion, no one has demanded entry to a home on the wrong floor. If they had, no one would’ve been granted it, either, And if we’ve lived together in a building for longer than a month, I have never mistaken anyone or been mistaken by them for an intruder.
Apartments are for those just starting off or starting over, those saving up for a house or recovering from a foreclosure. They’re for college students and retirees and people who may never own home but value the independence of living away from wherever they were raised. No matter the circumstance, in apartments, everyone’s eyes are on their own page. Everyone’s preoccupied with their own paths, their own bills, their own lease dates. It’s rare that anyone seeks out more trouble than they’re already fielding.
When Amber Guyger broke into Botham Jean’s apartment and stole what was left of his life, she imperiled everything we thought we knew about apartment living. Forced intimacies and polite detachment—all of it’s bullshit when the woman who lived in your building and shot you for no coherent reason is a cop. None of it matters anymore; all civility is undone. Because even after it takes months to charge her for murder, even after a year awaiting her testimony, even when a prosecutor proves that testimony to be full of half-truths and whole lies, even after she’s convicted of ten years and everyone seems eager to hug her, stroke her hair, and tell her she’s forgiven, days later, we will hear news of another neighbor. Another young black man, who heard too much and grew fond of the sounds, simply because they were familiar.
Joshua Brown lived next to Botham. In an extreme act of good neighboring, he testified for the prosecution in Amber Guyger’s trial. On the stand, he described hearing Botham sing every morning. He heard it, he told the judge and jury, as he was locking his own door on his way out to start his days.
He has probably heard it many days since, the phantom song of a next-door neighbor, suddenly, brutally departed.
Now Joshua is dead, as well, gunned down under mysterious circumstances, not even one week since Amber Guyger’s sentencing.
We are connected not only by how we live, but where, our fates entangled the tightest,
close to home. There is nothing much else to say when death connects neighbors the way adjoining walls do, when judgment falls on one hand and fresh injustice weighs on the other.
I can only pray that Joshua Brown had good neighbors, neighbors who believe that his death is their business. And that in honor of Joshua’s memory, and of Botham Jean’s, we all resolve to intervene on behalf of the people we hear beyond our walls.