Sometimes people say I live in the ghetto. I cringe when I hear that. I live in a vibrant, beautiful neighborhood with diverse communities. But I also live on a dividing line. East of me, the neighborhood has been invested in and revitalized by the University of Pennsylvania. West of me, the neighborhood remains largely disinvested and disenfranchised. I’ve learned that both areas of the neighborhood have a lot to offer, but many people write off far West Philly as the “hood” after driving through it once.
My freshman and sophomore years at K, I participated in a community-organizing project called Building Blocks. We used grant money to lead residents of poor, core-city neighborhoods in exterior home renovations and weatherization projects. The short-term goal was neighborhood beautification, but the long-term goal was to create a space for residents to get to know each other, work together, and strengthen their sense of community on the block. By participating in this program, I learned firsthand the value of community in a disenfranchised urban neighborhood dealing with poverty, unemployment, limited opportunity, and high crime rates. But being a college student living in dorms, I never had the chance to put this valuable lesson to practice.
Until now. Suddenly, I’ve found myself living in a neighborhood facing many of the same issues my Building Blocks residents dealt with. I am part of this community, even if only for 16 weeks. I have a strong desire to engage with my community, to learn from my neighborhood and give back to it whenever possible.
On Monday, on the way home from work at 4:45, I passed the Clark Park Halloween Parade. At least a hundred costumed children and parents were marching up 45th, flanked by an impromptu marching band. It was beautiful and strange and colorful. I raced home, crossed the street to the Dollar Store, and picked up a Halloween bowl and some candy. I sat outside for three hours handing out candy to the kids of my neighborhood. My housemates joined me when they got home from work, and went on additional candy runs to the store.
That was one of my favorite nights in Philadelphia so far. The children were adorable, and their joy and excitement were contagious. My next door neighbors set up a haunted porch with the theme “Occupy Sesame Street” and invited the kids in the community to experience it, while handing out information on the occupy protests to parents. There were princesses, football players, ninjas, witches, tigers, barbies, and doctors lined up all the way down the block in a chaotic, loud disarray. I felt connected and involved in the daily life of West Philadelphia; I felt great.