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Friday, December 3, 2010

Opting for Winter Solitude (From my STAR column)

Cold weather, as a neighbor of mine likes to remind me, means that people who live on my block don’t “see” one another until the spring. That’s a slight exaggeration, of course. We do see one another ‘quick glimpse’ style as this or that neighbor scurries back and forth to their car, the bus stop, or the corner store.

Winter means that the sidewalk conversations and impromptu meetings that occur during the warm weather months are at a minimum. Sidewalk gab fests and stoop sitting disappear. One can literally go weeks or sometimes months without seeing somebody they used to see everyday in the summer.

For some people in row houses, not seeing other neighbors on the street is a condition they’d like to make permanent. These Thoreau-style hermits are much like contemplative nuns in that when they do meet neighbors they keep contact to a minimum, offering a cursory “How do you do?” and then moving on as if further intimacy was a contagious virus. Some of these folks never even get to know the people next door. They live like those in detached homes in the suburbs rather than in a tightly knot fabric of row houses in the inner city.

While we all have occasional bouts of this sort of behavior, it does pay to know who you are living with.

Living in the inner city, after all, should mean that you are willing to experience a shared sense of community.

When I lived in apartments in Center City, I found that most apartment dwellers kept to themselves. Scores of people can be crammed into a high-rise but it’s not uncommon to find a tenant who knows no one in the building they can call a friend. Communication among tenants in large apartment buildings is often reduced to quick nods or ‘hellos’ in the elevator, nothing more.
But life on an urban street with row houses is different. This is the place where people put down real roots and can wind up living for years, even decades. Because this is the case, there’s a greater interest in knowing who lives across the street or next door.

Block parties are a great way to meet and keep the communication flowing with neighbors. While being neighbors with someone is no guarantee of a friendship, a superficial bond, especially in times of calamity and distress, is better than no bond at all. If a flood or massive hurricane were to devastate the area, not knowing anyone on the block could be a marked disadvantage. In disastrous situations, the man who is an island sinks rather than swims.

This “people need people’ cliché is true even in minor situations where house keys are lost or stolen and you need to walk through a neighbor’s house to get into your own. Ditto for borrowing your neighbor’s phone, or even a candle or flashlight when their lights go out.
Though every neighbor may not be your cup of tea (think personal chemistry, snob or socio-cultural background issues, etc.), building a bridge with those you may not necessarily invite to dinner is still a wise thing to do.

My neighborhood’s first block party occurred several years ago. While it wasn’t along the lines of a Northern Liberties Piazza spectacular, it did give everyone here a chance to roam from table to table and check out who lived where and introduce themselves. I joined the festivities by putting out a small café table and a bucket of wine and cheese. The music was tacky karaoke, but fun. While the party was hardly the social event of the season, I was at least able to see another “side” of my street.

There were no deaths, gunfights, arguments, untoward comments or glances, and this is why I was surprised when neighbors here turned down a request for another block party this summer.
Although I was out of town when the Streets Department petition came around to get 75% of the neighbors approval (or one signature per household), it bothered me when I was told that the petition handler couldn’t meet the quota.

That rejection, as small and insignificant as it seems, means that people didn’t want to be bothered, but why?

Closing off the street for one day or a long afternoon is not a troublesome venture, and should not be perceived as a threat to anyone, not even chronic party haters.

Likewise, small businesses on the street should also be willing to co-operate rather than object to an event that is essentially healthy for the neighborhood.

Closing the street once every four years for an afternoon will not destroy a healthy business, instigate a riot or, as Chicken Little so aptly put it, cause the sky to fall.

Thom Nickels

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