The Trip pt. 2
So I said I would write more about my trip, the cross-country drive, but less than two weeks after arriving it already feels too distant to dwell on. Images stand out: a twilit forest in Wyoming, and a giggling match of bean bag with a family at a brewery below red rock there. A lightning storm that moved across the dome of our tent that night, the gap between the flash and the bang tightening until it clattered right above us and then rolled on. All the bison, the deer, the elk, the boiling river meeting the frigid one. I can conjure them now, but I’m so thoroughly here, so totally enchanted with the neighborhood I’ve landed in, that I don’t think about the journey much.
I can hardly believe how lucky we are to have wound up right here, on this block, this street. That feeling I was chasing, of being a part of the public life? I’m nearly overwhelmed with it. Yesterday morning I stopped by the local neighborhood association just to introduce myself and get on their mailing list. I left having volunteered to help out with grant writing and a survey of community wants and needs. A flier was in our mailbox when we moved in for a project at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center — three blocks away — sourcing photos from residents to create a visual archive of the neighborhood through the decades. One of my former NYU professors curated it. When I went to see her speak on a panel about it, I found out the organization is turning a vacant lot across the street into a sculpture park, too.
Then last night, taking a break from cleaning to look up local organizations online — the irony of the 21st century — I saw an event was happening in 50 minutes in a park a block away. A huge coalition of neighborhood groups are throwing a street feast in September, and last night a woman with a mobile screen print operation was helping people print a map of the neighborhood onto placemats for it. The map itself had been designed at another community event.
It was extraordinary, not only the creativity, but the commitment. Some neighbors were also meeting to talk about maintaining the park, finding the funding for a new handball court, throwing a neighborhood garage sale-style event there. Before the meeting, a woman called me over to her bench and asked if I like the neighborhood. She and her fiancé are looking at buying a house down the block. I gushed, I talked about the little farm where we’ve been volunteering, and the Photo Arts Center and the street feast and the neighborhood association. She smiled and said, it seems nice, but it’s not Fishtown, referring to a deeply commercialized, deeply gentrified neighborhood a few blocks away. I said that’s true, but I love it. I can bike or walk to the restaurants and bars in Fishtown, and there’s still enough coffee shops for me to work from close by. She seemed to take it as a given, that the neighborhood becoming more like Fishtown would be a good thing, and that it was what I wanted too.
This has been a topic of deep ambivalence for me since we’ve moved in. There’s a tax incentive program happening in the city right now that is making development boom. We live in a row home wedged between two others: the first floor of the row home to our right is a bar; the building to our left is broken into apartments. Beside that is a vacant lot that a local family has transformed into food stall selling pinchos — Puerto Rican empanadas. Four more homes stand shoulder to shoulder past that, then another empty lot, then an enormous former umbrella factory that’s being converted into luxury apartments. Iris, who owns the bar, says she’ll probably sell once the umbrella factory opens. She’s tired of just serving just the locals, who only give her their business until 7 or 8, and mostly buy beers and take them to sit outside on the stoop anyway. (We do it too, stoop life is strong in Philadelphia.) “I want to attract those white yuppies,” she says.
And that’s great. She’ll make a killing when she sells her building. So will Ralph, who’s been working with Steve renovating the downstairs and owns a few doors down. There’s strong homeownership in this neighborhood, so the threat of displacing renters isn’t high, and those who sell will cash in big time. Our place sold for $10,000 just 20 years ago.
What worries me is the commercialization of neighborhoods, of cities, the idea that a neighborhood is “complete” because it has the kind of businesses that cater to the white yuppies, and inevitably headed there if it doesn’t. I fear that’s what the travel-as-moral-imperative ethos does too: turns cities and even countries into commodities, collector’s items. Especially in a neighborhood like this, where people are so visibly, so beautifully, coming together to rally in their own collective self interest and bask in their own collective power, it’s so woefully inadequate to judge it by its commodity value. Steve and a visiting friend and I debated this a lot this weekend. Filling in the vacant lots, fixing the streets, these are all good things. And if people who live on this block want to cash out and move on, power to them. Heck, as a digital nomad, I am wholly dependent on the coffee shop – wireless internet complex. I’m more concerned that the culture of money is also often a culture of privatization: of goods, of services, of social spheres.
Just a quick note on this whole ANTI-nomadic endeavor. I still fall prey to that travel-as-moral-imperative ethos too. Especially spending as much time as I have been cleaning the house, furnishing it, I get restless. I see friends at the beach, on trips, abroad, and I start plotting plane tickets. But that’s what strong local ties do: they make my own neighborhood a space of excitement and discovery. Maybe that’s part of what’s missing for a lot of people our age. We don’t feel deeply connected to the places where we live because we largely interact with them through commercial spaces. The only change we see comes from developers, not from residents. So we think transformation is found elsewhere. For me, anti-nomadic right now means transforming today, right here.
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