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Neighborhood Activist Finds a Sense of Place

Interview Kathleen Hirsch

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1998



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North Point Press

244 pp., $24

Kathleen Hirsch has always liked cities. But after living in Boston's Back Bay for 10 years - a decade filled with friendships and culture but lacking roots - she yearned for something more. She wanted a place to belong, a sense of community.

In 1990, after house-hunting in Boston's tonier areas - Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Brookline - Ms. Hirsch stumbled upon the down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, a community of 43,000 still "in transition," as she politely puts it, after two decades of deterioration and middle-class flight. Its quirky charm, abundant green space, and cultural diversity drew her. Soon she and her husband were packing their possessions to begin a new life in a yellow Colonial on a shaded street.

The move was a leap of faith. The week they arrived, a young man was shot to death outside a bar here in a drug deal. But Hirsch held high hopes that Jamaica Plain - or J.P., as residents affectionately call it - would "harbor that most rare and vanishing of life-forms, authentic neighborhood life."

She has not been disappointed. So profoundly satisfying has been the experience that she recounts it in a book: "A Home in the Heart of a City." Subtitled "A Woman's Search for Community," the book is a love song not only to Jamaica Plain but to the idea - the ideal and possibility - of community everywhere.

As sunlight streams into Hirsch's airy living room on an autumn morning, she reflects on the past eight years. Calling Jamaica Plain an "intentional" community, she says, "It's not just real estate, it's the experience. People are looking for something other than just a place to live."

What many find is a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-involved, make-a-difference kind of place, where neighbors chat on the sidewalk and where London Fogs and Jerry's Auto Shop jackets hang side by side on pegs at a local watering hole. In a town where half the residents are white, a third Latino, and 17 percent black, many relish what Hirsch calls "a hodgepodge of races and tongues."

"This place really is the product of everyday citizens," she explains. "It's not about City Hall planners trying to get together and plan how to revitalize Main Street. It's about people."

Describing those who have worked tirelessly to restore the community after busing and a highway project sapped its economic and social vitality, Hirsch says, "These people were not born do-gooders. They're characters, full of color and passion."

Heading her list of passionate characters is Christine Cooper, a single mother who was shocked to discover, after an eight-year absence, that the once-beautiful Jamaica Pond was surrounded by a tangle of thickets and trash. Armed with determination and a large supply of trash bags, Ms. Cooper began the daunting task of reclaiming embankments and footpaths.

Other activists include a corporate lawyer who became a local legal advocate and a bureaucrat who transformed an urban acre into a community garden. Terry Burke, minister of First Church Unitarian Universalist, has nurtured his congregation from a handful of members to more than 400 today.

The fruits of labors like these are evident throughout Jamaica Plain. It boasts a symphony orchestra, two community theaters, three libraries, 18 playgrounds, 19 churches, and more active neighborhood associations than any other part of Boston.