Neighborhood Activist Finds a Sense of Place

Interview Kathleen Hirsch


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.

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.

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."

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