Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

In late February, a fire ravaged the building that houses Hawthorne’s, a neighborhood restaurant. The self-proclaimed “beer boutique and gourmet eatery” was an accommodating, family-friendly place, always bustling with strollers, good friends, and good food.

The fire was on a Friday morning. On Monday, I drove by while en route elsewhere. What I saw was devastating—but not in the way you’d expect. Sure, there were charred building remains littering the sidewalk, downed awnings, and blackened brick walls. But most disturbing? Fresh, white graffiti covered the windows of the beloved eatery.

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To think there are people in our community who willingly set these local business owners back days? weeks? in their efforts to rebuild, refurbish, and reopen. Why are we destroying each other’s property in the dark hours of night instead of showing up on Monday morning to lend a hand?

The fire was accidental. But the graffiti was malicious. I struggled to find the words to explain it to my kids.

It’s particularly troubling that it happened to this eatery.

Hawthorne’s hovers on the border of the gentrified section of town and the public housing projects immediately to its west. It was pushing social boundaries—a veritable community frontier. From its street-side tabletops to the cozy fireplace within, Hawthorne’s fed its patrons more than just delectable fare; it served up intimacy and community as well. With no steps to navigate and a wide-open floor plan, strollers were welcome! The waiters made it a point to put the kids’ food orders in first. One of the quirky perks of the place was that you would have to get up from your table to browse the extensive beer selection. Inevitably, you’d strike up casual conversation with your fellow patrons about pale ale versus lager or exchange tidbits about Trappist monks.

People came there to connect.

I couldn’t help but lament the graffiti’s direct affront to social capital. We are already more withdrawn than ever before, retreating to our own separate spaces, accomplices to the steady decline of communal living.

In 1982, The Atlantic published George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s pivotal Broken Windows Theory:  “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired,” it is a “signal that no one cares,” and “all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

The ripple effects are devastating:  “In response to fear people avoid one another…” Residents will think that “crime…is on the rise” and “[t]hey will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps.”

It’s over 30 years later. Gone are the days of block parties and cookouts. We’re reluctant to send our children to the local convenience store or bus stop alone. Rarely are we responsible for the neighbor’s kids. Instead we turn inward, parent privately, and rely on Facebook, Twitter, and other such networks to connect. But have we cultivated a parenting cyber-community in the absence of an actual one?

No matter how “social” media can get, there’s no substitute for human contact. If fear, or complacency?, keeps us indoors, our communities steadily weaken, our kids become disconnected…we all suffer.

I’ve written here before about how at our home, a 1920s Philadelphia row house, we sit on our front stoop as a way to bring the outside in. What began as a way for me to feel connected during the sometimes lonely warm-weather days of my first maternity leave has evolved into a family pastime. The boys anticipate the garbage trucks on Thursdays. Scope out the mailman. Learn the bus route. The older boys check the weather. Or they stand on the top step, steadying themselves with one hand on the doorframe, little necks craned and faces hopeful as they impatiently watch for Daddy’s return home.

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One morning last week, I stood on my stoop feeling sorry for myself because the beginnings of rain meant I had to unload the double stroller and transfer many boys and bags into the minivan. I all but avoided making eye contact with the (sometimes too) talkative older gentleman across the street. Determined, he crossed, came to my side, and shared that they’re burying his wife today. She died on Wednesday.

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When we sit on the stoop, it feels like we’re letting people in. Letting them affect us. Making the world a little smaller. Making the outside feel like an extension of our home. Allowing people to see who we are and where we live, instead of being afraid, guarded, and “siloed” all the time.

And, in turn, my kids learn how to thank the mailman and be kind to their neighbors.

I want them to live in the world. To be curious about other people. Who they are, where they’re going. I want them to experience true empathy and wonder. To understand what it looks like to take the bus to work. To appreciate the distinct people and paths in our surroundings. To not only be preoccupied with our own comings and goings; to be comfortable with themselves, wherever they are.

I want them to marvel at the commonplace, the everyday. To not need anything more. The landscape of our city street, these passers-by, this steady rhythm of life being lived. This is entertainment enough.

Even when the rain threatens, we walk. I will miss this city life, when the inevitable pull of convenience and circumstance takes us elsewhere. When the practical overshadows the ideal.

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When I saw the Hawthorne’s graffiti, I felt fear. But not of vandals or crime. A fear that the quaint, idyllic image of the 1950s town—kids running rampant in the streets, unattended and unafraid, wild and free—is getting even farther out of reach. As Kelling and Wilson acknowledge, for those “whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments,” the pernicious effects of broken windows “will matter greatly . . . [F]or them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.”

If we want to reclaim the “village” model of raising our children, we need to create a safe space in which to do so. Our families, our communities, need to take to the streets—not only once a year, or with a dedicated project in mind, but every day, in small ways. Turn on our porch lights. Whenever possible, walk to our destinations instead of drive. Make eye contact and smile at the people we pass—even if they look menacing. Especially if they look menacing. We need to look out for each other. Get out from behind our screens and onto our screened-in porches. Open our windows and sit on our front stoops. We need to make this world a little smaller–by not being afraid to be a part of it, to make it our own.

So let’s get out—and let the outside in.

After all, open windows aren’t easily broken.

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2 thoughts on “A Step Towards Community

  1. “I want them to live in the world.” Oh, yes. To not need anything more than the everyday. I love this. We walk, too, though we haven’t done much stoop-sitting and I think we need to. What you describe as your dreams for your children are mine too. xox

    1. Thank you, Lindsey! I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you appreciate and relate to what I write. I love, and am humbled, that you are out there reading my words. Would love to hear about your stoop-sitting, if it transpires. xoxo

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