We live on the same street, my neighbor and I, and we avoid eye contact at all cost. I’ve seen him dozens of times; on my way to work, coming back from class, on the weekends…too many times, I feel, to introduce myself now. As we pass each other in the street, he glances at me but I look down. Day after day, we pass without saying hello.
We all yearn for a sense of community in our neighborhoods. Basic human nature tells us to feel comfortable around, welcomed, and valued by our neighbors. We need to feel a sense of attachment to improve the places we live in. Therefore, to feel the value of giving back to our communities, we first have to feel valued by our communities. Building sustainable cities and supporting local business starts with caring for and being taken care of by our neighborhood.
Last August, my girlfriend and I embarked on a move to Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in south central Boston, from Bloomington, Indiana, our beloved college town. Our sights were set high; according to everyone we spoke to, people seriously love Boston. Nine hundred miles later, we settled into our apartment and dove face first into the hustle and bustle of graduate school. As soon as we knew it, our first few months in Boston flew by and we were still desperately clutching our tourist visas. Our lives revolved around home and school. Whenever we did venture out, chances are we would find ourselves lost in a winding and confusing city.
Settling into a new place takes time, I respect that, and I’m an all too impatient person at times. And yet as soon as Katie and I started feeling the slightest hint of Bostonian comfort, the winter hit. A cold, rainy, snowy, and long Northeastern winter that triggered an annual siren for people to retreat into the depths of their apartments; doors and windows were nailed shut, heaters were turned on, and blankets were stacked on the ready. In other words, the city went into mutual hibernation. Under the gray skies, peeking out the window of my apartment into a snowy, soulless world, I was left to wonder. What was all the hype about? Five long months passed by as I waited for an answer.
Eventually the pale winter sky began to make room for a gentle Spring blue. The snow melted and March brought about record rainfall. March showers bring April flowers in Boston. The flowers weren’t the only thing blooming; after a long winter slumber, I saw the city come alive again. As soon as it hit fifty degrees, people stormed outside like junkies. Floods of residents wearing T shirts and shorts, in desperate need of fresh air, attacked any and every establishment with outdoor seating. Outside my apartment, sounds of reggaeton or rap once again boomed from open car windows, quietly satisfying my soul.
Over the course of two weeks, I witnessed a more or less empty city burst open with life again. Trees flowered and flowers bloomed, blue jays and song birds returned, grills were fired up, porches were tidied up, and community gardens were groomed. The seeds of my love affair with Boston were planted.
I really like Jamaica Plain. In short, the neighborhood feels like a small town inside a big city. I wake up to birds chirping. The air is cleaner, and there is plenty of green space. The residents are laid back liberals of all shapes and colors. Main Street (Centre Street) survives on local business – you won’t find the likes of Chipotle or KFC here. Most stores (especially their signs) have an old school feel that dates back to the Sixties and Seventies. Overall, the community prides itself on keeping its identity alive.
JP serves as a wonderful example of a functioning, progressive, and sustainable community. As corporate chains swallow up mom and pops all over America, more people are voicing their desire to go local these days. The Detroit Community Initiative, for example, is committed to improving lives by rebuilding the city’s ghostly communities. The idea is that in a tight knit community, people watch out for and support each other, reducing crime and spurring local business. Buying local also reduces our carbon footprint as well, as food travels an average of 1500 to 2000 miles.
Often, the extra price of buying local products stands in the way of most consumers. So why do JP residents pay the extra dollar to support local business? I, like most, have/had a tough time wrapping my head around that one. On one hand, I want to support local business. On the other hand, I’m poor, and my neighbors aren’t much richer. After months of deliberation, the answer came to me at Wake Up the Earth! this May-day in JP.
Wake Up the Earth! was the best free festival I have ever attended: Five hours of music on two stages kicked off by a wacky only-in-JP parade, flanked by a potpourri of local and ethnic caterers as well as a variety of non-profits looking for volunteers. Make no mistake, it. was. awesome. – a truly wonderful event with a positive message. And who did I owe the pleasure of attending Wake Up the Earth! ? None other than my neighbors, the vendors on Centre Street. As I looked past the music, the food, the people, and the fun, I experienced a moment of clarity. On a spiritual level, I was enshrined into my new community. Then and there everything I had wondered over the past few months became clear. I understood why we buy local and stay local here in Jamaica Plain. That’s what it means to be a part of a neighborhood. When we look out for our neighbors, they look out for us. When we spend an extra few dollars at the Co-Op, they bring our community festivals. I left Wake Up the Earth! a changed man. The value of community had penetrated my soul; I felt honored to be a resident of Jamaica Plain.
Remember, your community can be a tremendous resource for you. Support your neighborhood and your neighborhood will support you. Keep your head up and smile at your neighbors. Sit on your porch and show your face. Introduce yourself if possible. Frequent local establishments and become a regular. Get involved and buy local. You have the power to build a sustainable community in your hood!
I’ve promised myself that next time I see my neighbor, I won’t hesitate to strike up a conversation.
For more on communities and neighborhoods, check out GOOD inc.’s Neighborhoods Issue.