Four years ago, I'm standing in front of my rowhouse, holding my infant son in my arms, looking up and down the street. It's been a cold, hard winter, and all of the enthusiasm I'd held only months before, about moving into Philadelphia, plugging into a community, and the possibility of making a difference is drying up. The reality of caring for a baby and of connecting to people who already have routines and tight relationships with each other is setting in. I am so over my head. I didn't grow up in a neighborhood. I don't know how to be a neighbor. What am I even doing here? I look up and down the street. I see trees. Cars. No people. And all of the doors are closed.
There are moments now that remind me of the feeling of that day. Like when a friend is recounting a story of getting mugged or when I pass by another street with a pile of teddy bears and candles marking a place where another child has been shot. I feel cold and sad and full of fear -- all I want to do is go back inside and close my door.
But I didn't close my door four year ago, at least not for long. I didn't really know how to be a neighbor, but I did know that I wouldn't meet my neighbors if I stayed inside. So I dragged my shy, introverted self outside. I brought out some tools and started digging up and turning over the grass on our little patch of land above the sidewalk. I figured out how to build wooden boxes for raised garden beds. And I filled those boxes with seeds, flowers, tomatoes, and herbs. Every time I got out there, someone passed by. We'd say hello to each other, and sometimes we'd learn each other's names. Sometimes we'd even have a conversation.
Is it always easy? No way! But every year the connections have grown, and the garden itself has provided a way for other people to approach me. They want to know what I'm growing. Or tell me they enjoy walking by it. Or that their toddler loves stopping there to pet the flowers.
New folks moved in a couple of doors down and they saw ours and decided to build garden boxes too. And now my neighbors are discussing building a fire pit between them so we can all hang out around it.
And then this happened: a couple of nights ago, I'm coming home and it's late and very dark. I can see in my path ahead that there are a couple tall young guys, standing in the shadows, drinking beer. As a women especially, this is the type of scenario that puts me into alert-mode. I keep going, but my keys are in my fist at my side, and I feel that trickle of fear down my spine and all I want to do is get inside and close my door. And as I get close, I recognize it's two of the guys on my block -- James and Raphael -- whom I say hi to all of the time. So I call out a greeting to them with happy relief in my voice and as they call back to me I can hear the happy relief in their voices too. One moment we're all feeling that little piece of hell that is fear and uncertainty and strangers in the dark and the next moment we feel that little piece of heaven that is hope and connection and safety even in the dark. It was just a small exchange, but it felt like a great triumph -- a little glimpse of the neighborhood I'd always hoped for.
I don't want to paint too rosy a picture here, though. Because at the last block meeting I went to, there was a good turnout, but I was the youngest person there by about 20 years. And it's not for lack of millennials and Gen-Xers on my block. If we want embrace the tremendous resource encompassed by Philadelphia's many varied neighborhoods, and if we want to make a real difference in the safety of our streets, we can't do it alone. We have to get out there and connect.
If you have the desire to connect with passionate people committed to making a better Philadelphia, come out to the Ignition Philly Campfire by Ignite Good and hear stories of real vulnerability, real strength, and real opportunity from millennials who live here. The City of Brotherly Love is alive and at work. Come be a part of it.
(And if you catch this too late to go to the Campfire, know that it's never too late to start connecting with the people right outside your door.)