Tales From Park Hill
A town. A suburb. Something big or something small. Something real and tangible. Or something more elusive.
Has community been lost to our technological march forward? Was it left to rot by a youth culture that favored mobility and transiency over tradition and consistency? Did the World Wide Web, with its utopian promises of world domination, stampede over the dying body of community? Was that empty hole replaced by digital forums and texting, and the soulless, zombie-march of digital communication? Or, are those new media sites simply modern resurrections of the overly-romanticized historic reality?
In recent years, there has been much talk about defining, building and nurturing community within the structure of contemporary society. In this transient, digital, amorphous world of flippant disconnect, where do you even begin? Nobody knows what community is. The recipe, the formula, the DNA may have been lost a long time agao, if it was ever written down. Now all that is left is this romantic concept of a thatched-roof village or a pub in Boston where everyone knows your name. From out of that very limited scope and a hazy dream-like vision, we can derive that thing called “community.” If nothing else, community equates to consistent togetherness.
I can authoritatively say, “Yes. That is true.” I can say that because I once lived in a true community. Over the years, I have realized that my childhood experience was unique, at least in the modern United States. I spent that time nestled within the confines, power, magic and love of a real, old-fashion community.
But it wasn’t really old-fashion or even in-fashion…
I grew up in a small apartment on the sixth floor of a small building in the urban surroundings of New York City. Although our town, technically a borough, was often called a suburb, it really wasn’t in any traditional idyllic sense. The building itself was an unimaginative box made of orange and turquoise brick. Nothing about it was architecturally aesthetic, but it certainly stood out among its more common red and brown brick cousins.
This tangerine-colored building had a twin next door, and the two were connected by a large concrete pool deck. From there, you could see a highway of cars headed into the City. The rest of a property mimicked the urban tedium – concrete, cinder blocks, asphalt and chain link fences. We did have a few spotty grass areas, but those were off-limits due to broken glass and dog feces.
Despite its glamorous failings, the complex, fondly called Park Hill, was my world. It was all I knew. It was where I learned to walk, to speak and to smile. Within its walls and shadows, I learned about compassion, love and, most importantly, friendship.
Park Hill was a community – a real community.
The inhabitants of Park Hill didn’t choose each other. We lived together by happenstance and serendipity. We made due within the confines of that constructed space and, by some miracle, we built a utopian community of peace. It worked and we flourished for it.
I never really understood the benefit of that community until I left. Unfortunately, like youth, community is not appreciated until it’s long been lost. Now I miss that world – the comfort, support and tradition.
It was in that community that I became who I am. The other children, with whom I grew up, are all more a part of me than anyone I met through high school, college or beyond.
It was an old-fashion cultural modality set in a modern, urban world – the village of yesterday in an upright, concrete package. But unlike those villages of old, we were not all demographically the same. In that orange brick box, there were Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews – orthodox, reform and conservative – Atheists and others. We had families from China, Egypt, Israel, Russia, India, Iran and Italy. We had Black and White Americans.
We had picture-perfect two-parent families, and single parents struggling to make ends meet. We had retirees and young singles. There were executives, doctors, firefighters, teachers and scientists. We even had an ex-Mob boss that passed out $20.00 bills at Halloween instead of candy.
The diversity was spectacular. I always looked forward to eating homemade baklava during our yearly community pool party.
As children, we had each other and we knew it. We learned to ride bikes and swim together. We walked to school together. We played kickball in the parking lot and wall ball against the building. We bought ice cream from Norm’s truck in the summer and slid down the hills on text books in the winter. Every moment of my childhood can be linked to those children. We grew up in each other’s arms and spirits.
The adults were no different. When the winter storms piled the snow higher than the cars, there was always someone there to help shovel out the vehicle. In summer, a parental eye was always available to watch the pool so that no one drowned during a rowdy game of Marco Polo. Our homes, our apartments were always open, waiting for a friendly face. There was always room at the table, an extra plate of baked ziti, free space on the summer grill, and a kind word or warm hug.
This was a community.
Of course, everything wasn’t always easy or perfect. There were bad times; hard times and sad times. But that’s the thing about community. It keeps going regardless, and you work it out. Why? Because you have no choice.
You learn how to live, to cope and to overcome. We had a cocaine addict and dealer living in the building. There were divorces, deaths and marital scandals. There were emergency runs to the hospitals and horrible accidents. Then there was the time when one child killed a praying mantis, and two others chased him around the parking lot threatening to sue. That was really ugly.
Every day brought challenges, learning and growth. But that is community. You had to cope with the bad and celebrate the good. The elderly Asian couple next door loved to play piano at 7 a.m., which was troubling for a visiting college student. But I survived. I also spent over a decade going to sleep to the sounds of our bulimic neighbor ridding himself of calories while listening to Air Supply. I survived and I know the words to many Air Supplies songs.
This was community.
When the rats got into the air conditioning system, it took the village to figure out what to do. When the fire alarms tripped in the middle of the night, we stood together as a community until the ringing stopped. It was our neighbor who took both myself and his daughter to take art lessons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was another neighbor who taught me to respect her Islamic religion and Egyptian culture.
As time went on, the children left the building. We fledged our community nest, but the bonds created within the walls of Park Hill are everlasting. No matter how far these people have gone or I have gone, the impressions made during my years at Park Hill were far more powerful than anything since.
Yes, it was childhood. But it was more – it was a childhood secured within a real community. A village.
It was not an idyllic suburban paradise with rows of pretty houses decorated with Volvos and basketball nets. It wasn’t a fancy high-rise on the Jersey cliffs. It was a plain, even ugly building, located in the oldest part of our town. All it overlooked was a busy highway, a Catholic Church and 7-11.
From my bedroom window, I could see the New York City Sky line, the George Washington Bridge, the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges and sometimes even Yankee Stadium. I remember looking out and dreaming of getting away from that place, from escaping the community and finally being free from its oppression. Community can be oppressive.
But now, I long for that world again … because there is nothing like it.
To answer the original question, “What is community?” Togetherness is community – togetherness in the face of joy and strife. It is coping with the unavoidable closeness and finding a pathway to appreciating difference. Community is celebrating each others’ lives, being present for each others’ moments, accepting of each others’ weaknesses and basking in each other victories.
Our world has come so far from that point as a state of normalcy. Modern American suburban “communities,” and the like, may try to replicate it with their fancy advertising. But they fail because commercialism and well-cut lawns are not the fertile grounds for community. Our society has created a modern world based more on building personal dynasties, walling ourselves in suburban castles, and competing with the other. We don’t connect in our differences. We run from them.
Online forums may just be the desperate attempts to connect from within our personal dungeons. But they don’t necessarily work either. Its too easy to turn them off when the “going gets rough”
No, we don’t have many true communities. We have connections and networks. We can use the word community to define a collective of people bound by something, anything. That’s okay. But it’s not the same thing as a true community, in the traditional lasting sense. A true community will stand with you, the real you, to the bitter-end – even after the tallest towers fall or you are handed a Pulitzer prize. It will love you, even when it hates you. And, when you are gone, a piece of that community remains in your heart.
I know my friends from Park Hill are out there. We are a part of each other. They are the ones that made everything I am possible. And they will always be part of my community, if now only in spirit.
The seeds for community are everywhere, digitally and otherwise. If we break down the barriers between us and nurture them, we may find ourselves in a true community.