My family’s move to a row house near Patterson Park is transforming us. We knew we wanted to own less and spend less, to have a lighter footprint materially so that we could be more agile spiritually. We looked for and found density, diversity, walkability, public green space, easy access to shuttles. We wanted a place that prioritized being together for cooking and eating over privacy, with bedrooms just big enough for sleeping and storing clothes. And because we need to, we are spending more time on the street. The stoop of 109 South Chester is teaching us what being a neighbor means.
Yesterday I removed years of gravel from the stretch of “lawn” between our sidewalk and the street. Five minutes after I began, the six-year-old from 115 plopped down beside me and asked if she could help. “I love collecting rocks,” she told me, and then shared her day at school. “We learned about bones and the soft stuff in your ears and nose.” When I had trouble with my outdoor spigot, the man in 113 jiggled something in just the right way, so I could water the hard ground. A dog walker from a block away stopped to thank me for planting grass. 120 said “Amen,” and offered to water our little patch when it’s dry. 126 crossed the street asking for help to get to the airport, flummoxed by his Uber app. He handed his phone to a mom sitting outside with her son. “Can you make this thing pick me up tomorrow and take me to Cincinnati?” he asked, laughing at the wonder of technology and frustrated by his ignorance about it. While one neighbor was setting up his reservation, another snuck inside and returned with plastic glasses and something for everyone to drink. My daughter got home from school and walked around the corner to babysit for our youngest neighbor, born a bit early, three weeks ago.
It’s not all rosy: Sunday night we gathered at the intersection of Pratt and Chester as firemen put out a motorcycle fire. Parking is difficult, and we’ve learned the hard way that the street is not safe after 11:00. Last night my wife attended a community meeting, and the president could barely keep order. Frustrations big and small overwhelmed the agenda, making conversation all but impossible… litter, zoning conflicts, a playground burned down this summer keep us on our toes…
Yet, we are hopeful about Baltimore. We’re invested in its promise and its people and its problems.
I thought about all that reading David Brooks’ column this week. There is so much close to home and far away that can invite despair—violence in Las Vegas, tragedy in Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast, murder and racism in Baltimore, struggling schools… Fear encourages us to circle the wagons, dig a moat or erect a wall, disconnect from others and put ourselves first. The world is too scary to reach out, say the fortress builders. People disappoint us, so why risk loving across borders of race and class and nationality and religion?
But Brooks calls forth “energy, youthfulness, and labor” to counter this tribalism. We are made to be good neighbors, I would argue, a people who look hopefully toward a shared future, not resentfully eyeing some receding greatness behind us. How do we do it? Stop and talk with someone you’ve seen for years but never spent time with… go to a community meeting, sit by someone you don’t know, and ask how their doing… host a dinner and ask your guests to write to an elected official before dessert… tutor for two semesters… join a stranger who’s picking up trash… make sandwiches with your kids and serve them at Paul’s Place…
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus suggests that being a neighbor is our access to eternity. Another way to say it is that we don’t live until we love… across the street, on the stoop, in the ditch, within our families, around the world.