What is Community?

Tales From Park Hill

Community.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Nights at the Bridge

Tales from Park Hill

The story begins several decades ago. It’s right out of a movie. A bunch of high-spirited teenagers roam the streets of their hometown at midnight. They laugh, flirt and joke, aimlessly walking under the street lights with no real purpose. The teens stop at a big road to watch some late night police activity, when suddenly their laughter falls away into a deafening silence as the reality of what they are seeing hits them.

But this story is not a movie. It is real. The teens were juniors at the top of their class. The only substance abuse involved was, maybe, a few too many cheese fries at the local diner. The hometown was not a cozy, stereotypical suburb, but rather a congested extension of New York City sprawl; one of Manhattan’s many urban bedrooms. And, the road wasn’t any road. It was the crossroads of the world – the massive industrialized highway leading from the U.S. mainland to the New York Islands, and one of the biggest travel routes for people headed to New England. This was the toll bridge plaza for the George Washington Bridge.

[Photo Credit: Classic2eb at n.wikipedia]

We stood on the concrete, grungy overpass looking at the highway below. The air, which danced unnaturally in the yellow streets lights, seemed to contain more exhaust fumes than oxygen. But we were used to that. Our high school was only blocks away from the bridge. This was our home.

On the far side of the highway, cars were slowly inching into the toll booths, only to shoot out the other side to continue their journey across the bridge into Manhattan. On our side, there were no toll booths so cars flew by as they made their way into Jersey. This is where the Port Authority and local Police had setup a D.U.I and drug check point.

We were there because we were bored. It was midnight and it seemed like a good thing to do. The police routinely operated a checkpoint on the incoming side of the bridge on Friday and Saturday nights. Everyone knew about it but nobody had seen it. We figured it would be interesting to watch cops pull people over, perform checks and arrests. This was reality T.V. before reality T.V.

As we stood watching, something occurred to us. All the men standing on the arrest wall were dark-skinned. Then, as time crept on, we realized that most of the cars being pulled over were driven by dark-skinned men. I remember thinking, “What is going on?”

As a band of white, middle-class Jewish kids, we didn’t really believe what we were seeing. In our New York City, this didn’t happen. People scream at each other using all kinds of unsavory names, and then go laugh it off over a pickle and pastrami sandwich.

We went back again the next weekend. And, night after night and it was the same story.

I was sixteen, and it was the first time that I had actually witnessed an example of racist acts. I grew up in Utopian environment of interfaith, interracial and intercultural bliss. There we all were living in one little city building, like a happy bag of jelly beans. Nobody cared what skin tone you had, what god you worshiped, who you loved, how much money you had, or what language you spoke. It was my childhood reality; a glorious Utopian world created by happenstance.

[Photo Credit: Zachary Korb]

But those nights watching the Port Authority Police DUI checkpoint shattered “my glass menagerie.” What we witnessed was both upsetting and confusing. Coming to terms with what we saw was even more difficult – a cognitive dissonance of epic proportion.

The arrested men may have been drunk or serious drug offenders; they may have been criminals. We didn’t know for sure. The I-95 corridor through New Jersey into New York is one of the most notorious drug trafficking routes. We all knew that.

But we also knew that the Mafia had a significant presence in our town and the surrounding areas. In fact, one of my neighbors was a retired boss who gave out $20.00 bills instead of Kit-Kat bars on Halloween. Another neighbor was found to be laundering drug money and was himself an cocaine addict. They were both white and living among us.

Regardless of any truths or case facts, we were still forced to face something new.

Our country has an underlying, systemic problem with race – one that we have been struggling to overcome for many years. With each generation, change has happened. We manage to break through some of the limitations caused by destructive cultural constructs. From my own studies over the years, I have seen this positive progress, and the shattering of harmful elements that block the nurturing of a more equitable society.

However we are not there yet. While some issues have been put to rest, many have simply been shoved under the rug and glossed over. How much of our social progress is smoke and mirrors? How much is pandering and good P.R?

This insidious racism is not limited to one area of the country; it isn’t even uniquely American. The responsibility and blame don’t fall only on the shoulders of the police. They fall on each and every person who holds a membership card to this society. And they will continue to rest there until we live in a world in which skin color is simply one of the many beautiful details in the painting that is someone’s life.

Public Domain Photo

As I look back and shuffle through those memories, I recall another detail that scared me more than those nights at the bridge; something that was more indicative of a deeply rooted human problem. Several days after we had first watched the GWB checkpoint; after we had witnessed, what seemed to us, very clear racial and ethnic profiling, the same group of friends sat in the lobby of my apartment building. As we loitered as only teens can do, a small Egyptian boy darted out of the front door heading to the playground. I could hear him laughing as he went. When he disappeared from sight, one friend, who did not live in the building, said, “Look. A little terrorist in training.”

At that point, my heart sunk.  It has to end somewhere; with someone.  It ends with me.  Will it end with you?

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Photo Credits:
George Washington Bridge from N.J. [By Classic2eb at n.wikipedia]
Cross Bronx Expressway [Photo Credit: Zachary Korb]
George Washington Bridge at night [Public Domain]

The Risk

The Risk

When I publish, I never know what’s on the other side of tomorrow.

I never know what storm will seize up or what horrors will be unleashed from the vast pits of a fiery hell that I don’t believe in. I don’t know what childish tug-o-war will ensue over a single word or phrase that came to me in a moment of nothingness between sips of coffee. I don’t know if publishing will trigger the deafening sounds of silence or the ringing of accolades in the digital towers of majesty.

What exists on the other side of tomorrow is unwritten, unlike my words which are sitting there in measured stillness. While they are my words alone, born from my thoughts and dressed in my emotions, they will become the catalyst in a future chemical reaction between page and purpose. And, somewhere within that uncontrollable reaction, I will cease to exist. When the smoke finally clears, only a piece me will remain; the unknowable author who lies broken and alone in the sand.  And all of my words will be lost to the indelible theory of chaos.

But here, in the present, I sit staring at the page. I weigh the possibilities. I create hypotheses and analyze the outcomes. Sweat pours down my brow as the moment of publication is imminent.  Then I pause for one more glorious second of anticipation and push the button.

All that’s left to do now is let go.

 

The Southern Football Fan Machine Awakes

It’s that time again, late summer in the South. This part of the year is marked by three things: the start of school, late afternoon thunderstorms and FOOTBALL!  As the Crepe Myrtles bloom, colleges start their practices and, before you know it, the season of tailgating and face painting is upon us.

Unless you grew up in the midwest, you will never fully appreciate the love affair that southerners have with college football. Being from New Jersey, I didn’t understand the magnitude of the obsession until I married a native Southerner. Not only is my husband an avid college football fan but he also buys season tickets to Georgia Tech Football. Therefore, for me, the season officially begins when he emails me the Tech football schedule.

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Although I’m not personally a sports fan, I’ve always been surrounded by them. As such, I have noticed that not all parts of the country are as addicted to college football as southerners. In the northeast, for example, people seem to be more interested in pro-sports. You’ve never seen a more passionate gridiron debate than between a Jets’ fan and a Giants’ fan. However, you won’t see people walking around the streets of Manhattan with red and white faces yelling “Go Rutgers” or displaying car flags that read “Go SUNY New Paltz!” It is just not done.

By contrast, and let this be a lesson, if you plan to stay in the South more than five years, you had better take sides. An Auburn fan is distinctly different from an Alabama fan that wouldn’t be caught dead dining with a Georgia fan or boating with a Florida fan. And, gosh darn it, you had better not mix them up.

My husband wouldn’t have even considered marrying me if I had worn the colors of Tech’s rival, Georgia. Luckily, on our first date, I was wearing all black. Since I had no prior collegiate commitments, it worked out.

Throughout the entire year, Southerners publicly and tastefully display their “colors.” During the offseason, you can’t drive 2 miles without seeing a college emblem on a car or house. In the northeast, such signs and stickers would indicate a student’s attendance or a parents’ financial commitment. In the South, it is all about the football. In fact, often, the flag-toting individual never even attended the college-of-choice; nor did his wife, his children, his parents, his siblings or his second cousin once-removed. Everyone, regardless of educational background, must have an allegiance.

Then August rolls around. Everything changes as the rhythmic sounds of high school marching bands fill the evening air; waking up the great Southern college football fan machine. The sound of drums is a primal call to relinquish all attempts at subtly, refinement and discretion; to forget about family ties and old friendships; and to ready oneself for battle. As September arrives, the gauntlets are thrown down, the nylon banners are hung and stage is set.

imagesWhen that first Saturday arrives, every home, car and person is wildly adorned with team spirit. The state of South Carolina paints paw prints on the highway near Clemson. Krispy Kreme dyes their frosting in hometown colors. Even retail stores get involved by proudly displaying a school’s name on their flashing neon signs. “Cigarettes, Coca Cola and Tampons on sale this week only. Go Dawgs!!”

In local schools, Friday’s are often designated as  “Team Spirit” day. While this may sound like fun and games, it is really the day that separates the Hound Dogs from the Bull Dogs. It is the day for every man, women and child to publicly stand up and take a side. When the moment arrives, the halls are littered with team shirts, collegiate-wear pants, scarves, sweaters and socks. As if that wasn’t enough, Clemson Tigers hang from ear lobes, Yellow Jackets dance in Scrunciis, Tennessee Hound Dogs flop around on sandals and Uga hangs proudly from necks and wrists.

On game day itself, these dedicated teachers tear out of the parking lot with the sound of the school bell still hanging in the afternoon air. It is crucial to be at the stadium early Saturday morning in order to allow for effective and satisfying game-day tailgating.

Don’t believe for a second that this insanity is just for Southern gents. Most of these teachers are women. In fact, just a few years ago, I attended a Tennessee Football game with my husband’s family. My father-in-law is a Tennessee season ticket holder. As 107,000 orange-clad fans broke into “Rocky Top,” I looked over at my Mother-in-law and, much to my surprise, this otherwise sophisticated, respectable women was singing “Rocky Top, You’ll Always Be, Home Sweet Home to Me” and clapping her hands as fiercely as the freshmen down below.

Because the South is often referred to as Bible Belt, one would assume that Sunday is the most sacred day of the week. This may be the case during most of the year but not in the fall. During this season, Saturday is the holy day. In fact, the weekend can get quite spiritual when you have a “house divided.”

3060housedivbama_largeOff season friendships with rival fans may work well.  However, personal relationships change during football season. Black and red doesn’t mix well with gold and navy. Dogs and gators don’t make good bedfellows. Gamecocks won’t be seen in the same living room with tigers. When you have a house-divided, true colors eventually do rise to the surface. To survive, many loved-ones must engage is meditation, personal introspection and spiritual reflection.  Unfortunately, these individuals usually just find themselves in intense family debates over hot dogs garnished with a side of potato salad and profanity.

Southern college sports allegiances are undeniably a family affair. If dad is a Bama fan, so are his children.  If mom went to Clemson, children wear tiger stripes.  As for me, I don’t care.  In fact, I’m not even invited to engage in any of it. When I do go to a game, I spend most of the time watching the fans and mascot or making sociological observations on religion, football and beer. That never goes over well when the home team is in the red zone with less than 2 minutes on the clock.

For better or worse, I have learned not to interfere with this sacred and time-honored tradition. While I may not fully embrace the football spirit by wearing a set of “GT” bangles, I do try to remain a good sport. Why? If I’m a enthusiastic during football season, my husband won’t complain too loudly when the local theater season opens and I walk around the house with a dramatic sweeping gait while singing “One Song, Glory.”

 

The Little Rose Bush that Dared to Dream

[Photo Credit: H.Greene]

When all the other rose bushes bloomed their hot pink spring flowers, one tiny, flowerless rose bush looked up at the bigger shrubs and asked, “Why do we all bloom the same color?”

A bigger, taller and more experienced shrub sternly whispered, “That’s the way it has always been – season after season.”

But still the little rose bush wondered, “Why does it matter what we did last year? Our branches died back in the winter and there is little left. Wouldn’t it be fun to surprise the world with a new color?” The bigger roses just turned away without answering.

By afternoon the little rose bush had thought long and hard on the subject. He decided it was time for a change. So he dug very deep inside himself until finally he popped open a small orange flower. The bigger rose bushes were shocked. But they said nothing.  After all he was a small shrub hidden beneath their bigger leaves and brighter flowers. Nobody would notice.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

The little rose bush was very enamored with his tiny orange flower. He was so proud of what he had accomplished that he raised his branches towards the warmth of the late afternoon sun. He felt taller than ever before. And as the moon rose in the evening sky, he was still holding up his branches until he could hold them no more finally falling into a deeply contented sleep.

But the very next morning, the little rose bush awoke with new questions. He asked, “Do all my flowers have to be the same color?”

The three bigger, taller and more experienced shrubs rolled their petals around in disgust and said, “Yes. All flowers must be the same color.”

“Why?” asked the little rose bush still admiring his orange triumph.

“Because it is nature’s way. It has always been so and will always be so,” barked the biggest of the shrubs. Then all three turned away toward the heat of the rising sun.

The little rose bush, once again, thought long and hard. While he enjoyed his flower’s beauty, the little rose bush couldn’t help but droop his leaves. “Now I won’t be able to enjoy creating new colors,” he thought. “Orange is lovely but so is pink and white and yellow. Why can’t nature be different?” He was quiet for the rest of that day.

IMG_1750When evening came the little rose bush noticed a small red cardinal sitting in a nearby oak tree. The bird was heading back to its nest for the night. When the bird finally took to the sky, the little rose bush marveled at its flashy red feathers in the evening’s light. But he was soon reminded of his problem and sadly thought, “Maybe the big roses are right. Maybe we can be only one color. Maybe that is nature’s way.”

His leaves drooped even lower.  As all the shrubs began to prepare for the night’s sleep, a small bluebird landed at their roots. It hopped carefully between their thorny stems, green leaves and bright flowers. As the bird flitted about, the little rose bush noticed something. The bird’s feathers were blue and white and orange. There were many colors on one single bird.

Before long the bluebird flew off to its nest.  As it disappeared, the little rose bush began to dream.  All that night he dreamed of color.

Early the next morning, before dawn, the little rose bush awoke. He opened up is little orange flower, arranged his leaves and then dug deep inside himself. He dug deeper than ever before. Then suddenly, he popped open a brand new flower – a big soft pink flower.

He was so astounded by his luck that he decided to try again. He dug deep, even deeper than the first time, and out popped open a white flower.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene]

When the sun finally lit the morning sky and the bigger roses were fully awake, they saw what the little rose bush had done. They were amazed. They were shocked. They had nothing to say. So they turned toward the light of the rising sun. The little rose bush didn’t mind. He too turned toward sun’s warming rays and smiling whispered to himself, “Look what I  did.”

[Photo Credit: H.Greene]

 

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[Photo Credits: H.Greene]