What do you dislike about your neighborhood? That was the first question I was asked by a member of a local community organization. What makes you feel unsafe?
When I found out that the nonprofit representing my New Brunswick, New Jersey neighborhood was looking to interview residents, I jumped at the opportunity. I had moved there a year earlier for grad school, and I loved my neighborhood.
I loved sitting on my front porch watching three generations on their evening stroll: kids zigzagging out in front chasing the ice cream man; parents next, pushing strollers or carrying bags from the market; abuelitos in the rear, hands clasped behind their back.
I loved waking up on a Sunday morning to the raucous joy of the gospel choir down the block.
I loved that I could walk one block to the bodega, two blocks to the park and the butcher shop, and three blocks to the most electric little dance club of all time.
I loved that so many of my neighbors felt at home here - the same neighbors who readily admitted that they felt out of place in the newer, shinier downtown among the well-heeled professionals it was built for.
And I loved the organization that I was meeting with: a Catholic group that offered indispensable services to the neighborhood, from rehabilitation and crisis prevention to community gardens and public murals...
When I told the interviewer as much, he didn’t seem to find it relevant. He wanted to know what was wrong with my neighborhood and what made it "bad."
Of course, my neighborhood had its problems - serious ones: The median income was the lowest in the city. Muggings and burglaries were far too common. Homelessness was rampant. And there was no more poorly-kept secret than the brothel operating out of an abandoned house. This was what he wanted to hear about.
His views echoed the sentiments I heard from city officials about my neighborhood. Even if the goals were noble - improving education, curtailing obesity, reducing crime - there was little appreciation for the humanity that existed there. No wonder my neighborhood had so many problems - it was treated like a blight that needed to be fixed, not a community that ought to be cared for.
I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t strive for technical solutions to fix our neighborhoods, or that sentimental appreciation is more important than policy outcomes; I desperately want to see my neighborhood improve in measurable ways. But if we want our neighborhoods to get better, then we need to start from a place of love. It’s only when we care about our places and their residents that we can sustain the passion needed to fight for them.
If you love your neighborhood as much as I love mine, I urge you to put that love front and center: Despite its flaws, what are your favorite things about your neighborhood? How can you channel that love to make your community the best it can be?
And if you hate your neighborhood, I challenge you to look for what you love. Whether you’re in a disinvested husk of a town, in a sea of strip malls, or surrounded by massive McMansions, what makes you care for the place you’re in?
Do you love your town as much as I love my neighborhood? Why not enter it in our Strongest Town Contest?
(Top image of New Brunswick from Google Earth)