Neighborhood Activist Finds a Sense of Place
Interview Kathleen Hirsch
(Page 2 of 2)
Hirsch traces her own interest in community involvement to her teenage years. As the oldest of six children growing up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., she attended a "very socially conscious" high school in the city. That early exposure to issues of race and class led her to a career as an urban-affairs reporter - and later to Jamaica Plain.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In appearances on radio talk shows discussing Jamaica Plain and her book, Hirsch is heartened by the response from urban and suburban dwellers alike. "They say, 'This is exactly what I'm looking for. How do I do this in my community?' ''
How indeed, when Jamaica Plain's revitalization seems so much the product of one place, one particular group of people, one period?
Hirsch offers ideas. People, she says, need to look at where they live and ask, "What is our local culture? What are our local talents? What are some of the things that need doing? Where has life stopped up and how can we get it to flow again?"
Calling herself a believer in creativity, she suggests starting with creative projects, perhaps establishing an annual art show or a children's theater company. "Find someone who makes masks, someone who loves to tell stories," she says. And organizing a crafts day - cordoning off a few downtown blocks and getting restaurants to provide food - "would be great publicity for merchants and restaurants."
Equally important in promoting community ties, Hirsch finds, is a local newspaper that communicates what is going on in town.
Still, some problems seem intractable. Hirsch and her husband now face an agonizing choice - what to do about school when their four-year-old son, William, enters kindergarten next year. During a visit to a local elementary school, Hirsch watched in dismay as an angry boy threw a rock at a teacher. How, she wonders, can they give their son rich diversity without compromising his safety?
Other parents have answered that question with their feet. As one local politician ruefully told Hirsch, "We lose more good people because of schools than for any other reason."
But even this dilemma does not diminish Hirsch's abiding affection for Jamaica Plain. The average stay at their end of the street has been about 20 years - four times that of the average American family. Emphasizing the need for community connections everywhere, she says, "We've gone through a generation of people choosing a very privatistic form of life. You have your home and your children's lives nicely circumscribed, and then you get on with the business of earning a living. You assume your city or suburb will be nicely managed by managers, and you won't have to go to a town meeting unless you want a variance on your property."
Warning against isolation, Hirsch says, "Excessively private lives lead to a sort of cultural stupor."
As evidence of the hunger for community, Hirsch has received invitations to preach in churches. "I'm ecstatic," she says. "There is a very spiritual dimension to all of this for me." Community, she adds, "isn't a theoretical proposition. It's embodied, and it's not just an intellectual exercise."
Hirsch acknowledges that connecting with others and building a cohesive community is not always easy. "How do you mobilize yourself to go the extra mile?" she asks. "The only way you do that is have faith that it will enrich your life in ways you can't imagine when you begin."