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  • Writer's pictureChinelo Ikem

reflection: When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

~some spoilers~

"What am I supposed to do?" I get up and pace. "I'm not walking into a police station and announcing there's an organized movement to kill Black people and steal our land. Even though it's been happening in this country for generations and it shouldn't be hard to believe. Can we even call this a conspiracy theory? I mean...that's why the police exist in the first place. Of course they won't help!"


When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole is a brilliant, slow-at-first-but-quickens-near-the-end thriller that captures the frightening pace of gentrification in Brooklyn and many other Black cities and neighborhoods across the country.

But because gentrification is a real thing, the book's attempt at a thriller-esque tone was slightly dulled by the fact that everything was eerily too realistic. Like @readbytheroots said in her review: "Honestly I felt that this book was less of a thriller and more like a glimpse into the future."

Cole's When No One Is Watching follows Sydney Green, a Black woman in her 30s born and raised in Brooklyn, who moves back from Seattle after her marriage ends with Marcus. The details are cloudy, but it seems like Marcus accuses Sydney of being crazy when their marriage falls apart and actually gets her committed to a hospital for a while. Following that traumatic experience, Sydney moves back to her mother's home in Gifford Place, a historically Black neighborhood in Brooklyn. This experience also explains why Sydney often second-guesses what she sees happening in her community - she's afraid of being deemed crazy again. i thought this was great character development.

But the Gifford Place Sydney used to know IS changing - and fast. It starts with a tour around her neighborhood called "Historic Brooklyn Brownstones" that Sydney joins out of curiosity. The tour is lead by a white woman named Zephyr, who leads a mostly-white crowd around, points out the buildings, and names the old rich white, mostly-Dutch people who used to control Brooklyn way back when America was still kinda European.

But in her tour, Zephyr never talks about the near past or present Black inhabitants. She's purposefully erasing them to paint a Brooklyn that is rightfully white people's to take back. When Sydney interrupts the tour to share facts about Brooklyn's Black history, the tour guide suggests that Sydney start her own tour. This is what Sydney sets out to do, and the research she conducts for her own tour ends up leading her to the plot of a white developer to clear out Black people from the neighborhood and use former Black residents as test subjects for a new drug treating opioid addiction.

There’s also new VerenTech company the city has approved to move into the neighborhood, replacing the rundown hospital. VerenTech promises jobs and the revitalization of the neighborhood. But it's not for the current Black residents, it's for the white people who the banks and real estate are quickly pushing in. This is all connected. and the end of the book makes that clear.

As a result of these tours and the new deal promising revitalization, white people are buying land from Sydney's Black neighbors in suspicious ways. some of it comes in the traditional way - landlords are raising their prices to unaffordable rates. Or landlords threatening to call ICE. This is how Sydney's Malian hair braider Sandrine is evicted from her place.

Some of it is more insidious, but not any less realistic. For instance, one neighbor's "nerdy boy" child, Preston Jones, is accused of selling a "felony weight" amount of drugs by the police with no evidence. It's all an effort to burden the family with legal costs so that they have to sell their house. And once these Black families move, it's always a white family that replaces them.

The white people who move in really are symbols of the different types of white people who gentrify, and I really think Cole's brilliance is in the details. There's Melissa, "the college student whose parents paid a year's rent up front." There's Jen Peterson and Jenn Lithwick, the progressive white lesbian couple who sends articles about why gentrification is wrong to other white people in the neighborhood even though they are equally as responsible and seem to hold a weird view (at least in Sydney's view) that "all Black people are homophobic."

The worst is Kim, the rich white woman who was on the original tour with Sydney and whose father is behind much of the development as we find out. She has a photo of Michelle Obama framed in her kitchen, but she talks about being outnumbered in the community and threatens to call the cops on Sydney. Sometimes the depictions bordered on being too on the nose: there is a lot of ~white people love their dogs~ and ~white people love trying vegan options~. but I think that was kinda the point.

I thought this book did have moments that did make my heart race. For instance, there's a scene where Sydney gets in an Uber with a white male driver and he locks the door and takes an abandoned road to lecture her about personal responsibility and why gentrification is good. But then again, it made my heart race less because it was thrilling and more because I too have been in really scary Ubers. Somethings are all too normal.

So what probably bothered me the most about this book was Theo. I hate that the book tries to make him the good white guy even though he's quite literally the ex-boyfriend of Kim, the woman who is threatening the cops on people and whose father is behind all this mess. Theo's main excuse is that he didn't know Kim was that bad. But if Cole wants me to buy this, I can't.

If your girlfriend is the type of person who would call the cops on someone all willy-nilly, you would know. There's also the fact that Theo literally snitched out a Black character to the cops in the book, keeps this from Sydney, and gets to fall in love with her and end up happily ever after at the end????

Since the comparisons to Get Out are floating around let me say that i see it. However, in regards to my gripe about Theo’s character, what made Get Out brave was that Peele made all the white characters unreliable, including the main character's white girlfriend. I wish Cole had done that with Theo. Instead, Theo ends up playing this sidekick to Sydney, a semi-white savior character who ends up realizing way too late for me that his white girlfriend and her white friends are plotting something much more serious.

Overall - a good book, but devastatingly too close to reality to be a thriller.

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