The vagrants were getting aggressive while they panhandled in the parking lot between Starbucks and CVS.
"Bitch!" an angry-looking man in his 40s shouted at one woman who denied his plea for spare change.
A different fellow whom I turned down remained menacingly close while I opened my car door and quickly climbed inside. "Let's get the hell out of here," my friend said while jumping into the passenger seat.
We were on the edge of downtown in a mid-sized California city that shall remain nameless. Like countless other places, the city's downtown began to fail decades ago, went through a period of neglect, but is making a nice rebound. Still, its recent successes have not offset a whole lot of vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks.
OK, we were in Riverside – at the Starbucks on Market and Third streets, to be precise. To the north and west is the Fairmount neighborhood, an older residential area whose fortunes are closely tied to downtown. The neighborhood has some classic Southern California bungalows and craftsman homes, but maintenance is spotty. Some of the neighborhood's apartment houses look downright threatening, and a mini mart posts a full-time security guard at the front door.
On a quiet Sunday morning, Starbucks provided refuge. The baristas and counter help made eye contact with every person walking through the door and offered a hearty "good morning." The place was bustling with moms pushing strollers, hipsters, a couple guys enjoying the newspaper, and people on their way to work. I'm sure a few of the latte sippers were "urban pioneers" who live in attractive new housing nearby. Essentially, this was the multi-cultural crowd that delights downtown boosters everywhere.
But what about all of the angry guys outside the door demanding spare change? Who wants to put up with that all the time? Even if you're willing to tolerate, is it safe? Would you feel comfortable letting your elderly mother – or your 12-year-old daughter – catch the bus in this neighborhood?
I'm not picking on Riverside. Homelessness and myriad issues related to mental illness and chemical dependency plague many cities. I have no answers. It's apparent to me that no one does.
What I do know is this: A downtown that could tip in either direction has less chance of success if ordinary folks who want to grab a cup of coffee or fill a prescription have to run a gauntlet. Because, no matter how good a city's redevelopment plan is, those ordinary folks eventually will go elsewhere. That would be a shame.