Published June 24, 2008
When my brother and I were children, we enjoyed a set of Sesame Street records. One of my favorite songs was Oscar the Grouch singing "I Love Trash." Twenty-five years later, I still remember the chorus by heart—no Googling required: "Be it dirty or dingy or dusty/ Be it ragged or rotten or rusty/ Oh yes, I love trash!"
But the one I think the whole family sang together was "Who are the people in your neighborhood/ In your neighborhood/ In your neighborhood/ Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood/ They're the people that you meet each day."
Of course, this was a special, imaginary neighborhood, where everyone encountered each other in the course of their daily lives and jobs and had meaningful conversations. Now, my mail greets me when I arrive home, I don't greet the mail carrier. My cursory, compulsory exchange with the checkout person ("Did you press the green button?") or bagger ("Paper or plastic?") at Giant Eagle is not the idealistic chat with the neighborhood grocer I recall from Mr. Hooper's store.
But apart from the world of commerce and the interaction with service providers, there is the question of how we interact with those near whom we live. Who are our neighbors?
Last February, my family and I moved to Youngstown's North Side from Tucson, Arizona. We felt isolated there, implanted in a matrix of antiseptic, adobe cul-de-sacs; lost in a sprawling, sweating sea of roughly one million suburbanites.
My wife was born and raised in Youngstown and lived here for thirty years before we moved away for the last eight-and-a-half. She maintained a close group of friends here that were our community even as we lived in Washington, DC and then in Tucson. Our reminiscences, the stories she loved to tell, the places she loved to recollect—they were all here in Youngstown. Not because of the brick and mortar that surrounded the places these people inhabit, but because of the people themselves.
Youngstown once had the highest percentage of home ownership in the nation and still has an incredible stock of beautiful homes. Its downtown is hanging on to a precious core of stunning buildings. If you aren't familiar with just how incredible these buildings or their history are, Metro Monthly publisher and degreed architectural historian Mark Peyko will host his next downtown architectural tour on Thursday, July 17th, departing from the Civil War monument in Central Square at 7pm. I attended the tour in May and came away much wiser from it.
But it is Youngstown's people that have always made the city special. From its pioneers who settled on the banks of the Mahoning to the explorers who discovered its precious natural resources to the innovators who turned those raw materials into iron and steel to the men and women whose muscles and might formed the manufacturing line from start to finish to the artists who continue to make it a unique place today.
Community in Youngstown, in many cases, derives from minorities. European immigrants and African Americans were driving forces in the working-class population that built Youngstown through its industries. We also have a strong LGBT community, a notable arts scene and a diverse religious community.
When my wife and I got a call in the fall of '06 that a dear friend here was terminally ill, our priorities suddenly crystallized. We put our home in Tucson on the market, told my employer we were moving and hoped an arrangement could be made where I could continue on remotely, started looking for a house near Crandall Park and, once we arrived, made the most of the precious weeks we had left with our friend.
For us, Youngstown is about living and raising our children in an environment centered on community. Since we've returned, we reconnected with old friends, met new neighbors and became involved in community projects on our block and throughout the area. We host a monthly potluck at our home including a diverse roster of friends and neighbors. I don't write these things to brag; this is simply why we're here, what we returned in order to be able to do.
But I read a rather extraordinary Op-Ed piece in the New York Times Monday called "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
There’s talk today about how as a society we’ve become fragmented by ethnicity, income, city versus suburb, red state versus blue. But we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines. I’m talking about the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.
I wanted to get to know the people whose houses I passed each day — not just what they do for a living and how many children they have, but the depth of their experience and what kind of people they are.
Eventually, I met a woman living three doors away, . . . who was seriously ill with breast cancer and in need of help. My goal shifted: could we build a supportive community around her — in effect, patch together a real neighborhood? I and some of the other neighbors ended up taking turns driving her to doctors’ appointments and watching her children.
Our political leaders speak of crossing party lines to achieve greater unity. Maybe we should all cross the invisible lines between our homes and achieve greater unity in the places we live.
It inspired me to challenge myself and challenge you, Dear Reader, to find a way to connect to a neighbor you don't know well or don't know at all. Make a new connection. Host a potluck in your neighborhood and get new people together. Bake a treat and surprise someone with a gift; use the opportunity to strike up a conversation and put one more name on your map of these 82,000 faces.
The more connected we are, the smaller the problems we face will become. As we reach across the divides that separate us and join together, we can help the neediest in our communities. We'll never know how much we are needed until we start asking. As a friend of mine likes to say, "We are the people we've been waiting for." Well, the only question is: what are we waiting for?