Altars in the Street: A Neighborhood Fights to Survive
Melody Ermachild Chavis
Bell Tower: New York, 1997
257 pp., $23.00 (cloth)

“Why do you live there?” white acquaintances often ask Melody Ermachild Chavis, a private investigator who has moved with her family to an old Victorian house on Alma Street, in an interracial neighborhood in South Berkeley, California, a street that has become the site of several drug-related murders. “Why don’t you leave?” ask her friends. But in their questions Chavis hears a more fundamental one: “Why do I live here? Why am I alive?” For Chavis, the sixteen years chronicled in Altars in the Street have been a test.

As a Zen Buddhist, Chavis recognizes that she has to find her way through the violence instead of trying to escape it. For her readers, she becomes a canary in the coal mine of the inner city, a white woman responding to the tensions of a troubled urban neighborhood. In her acknowledgments Chavis thanks the residents of Alma Street for giving her “the only real home I have ever known.”

This is a book about Buddhist activism. Chavis is no armchair Buddhist, motivated by an abstract bodhisattvic ideal. She does not preach, nor does she attempt to demonstrate that social action is the essence of Buddhist teachings, a position that is taken by many American Buddhists these days. In spite of Buddhist exhortations to retain a sense of balance, to be unattached to results, Chavis gives in to her desire to “do battle with what isn’t fair.” She doesn’t start a garden project for the neighborhood children or fight to get crack dealers evicted because she is a Buddhist. Hers is not a cultivated compassion—it is an impulse that flourishes untended and overruns every boundary in its path.

This firsthand account of life on Alma Street blurs the line of ignorance that normally separates middle-class whites from poor blacks in America. Almost naively, Chavis walks right into the front lines of a war. In that zone, she watches tragedies blossom like flowers, and those who wander astray are not evil, but have merely succumbed, irresistibly, to despair. The boy who is caught with a gun on a bus has borrowed it to defend himself from his drug-dealing parents; the crack-addicted woman who wanders the streets at night is mourning for her child who died in a fire; the death-row inmate who conspired to murder a prison guard becomes a gentle Buddhist convert who meditates on a folded blanket in his cell. Chavis is the one who first introduces this inmate to Buddhist meditation. “Jarvis,” she says to him, “all I know to tell you is what is helping me.”

The strength of Chavis’s story as a literary work lies in its realism rather than its narrative style. It does have its poetic moments: she writes of the “pink- blossoming barbed wire” of a Cecile Brunner rosebush planted along a fence. More often, however the prose is serviceable, even mundane: “Gideon was a beautiful child with an infectious smile whose bright eyes had a wise-beyond-his-years expression.”

Chavis also can come off sounding enamored of her own courageous spirit, and the story is sometimes diluted by a self-congratulatory note. The white heroine of the book and her black neighbors are treated as well-developed characters, while most other white individuals are flat and one-dimensional. Even her white husband, Stan, is portrayed as a busy lawyer who tolerates her activities but who would prefer to move away from Alma Street.

But these are minor offenses, forgivable in light of the book’s success as social commentary. The story emerges piece by piece, like a series of courtroom sketches. In recounting the trial of the neighborhood boy who has been caught with a gun, Chavis writes: “In my work, I’ve witnessed sentences in many courtrooms—even death sentences. In that long pause before the pronouncement, it always seems to me as if the breath of history blows through the room. And if the defendant is black, I imagine the wind in the sails of slave ships and all the rest that has brought us to one of these moments when the destiny of a young man is turned forever.” In that pause hangs a question that, ultimately, Chavis cannot answer for us.