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Letter fom Pittsburgh: Community healing requires more than just voting

Why We Wrote This

How should a community respond to a violent hate crime? Sentiment in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill suggests that politics and elections are a vital yet insufficient means to address society's ills. Love is needed, too.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Kristen Keller shows off 'The Peace Book' by Todd Parr, her favorite from her library's collection of children's books about community and coming together, Nov. 4, at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.

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This story was supposed to be about the election. I’d set out to ask the residents of Squirrel Hill if the Oct. 27 murders of 11 people at a local synagogue made politics feel utterly trivial to them – or if it made voting seem even more important. The answers – at least from those I speak to – seem to be yes, and yes. Partisan wrangling in Harrisburg and Washington pales beside a hate crime committed so brutally, so close by. At the same time, they tell me, the political nature of the act in some ways made voting seem more vital, more visceral. But then, inevitably, they add: Voting is just one thing. They tell me that what really matters now in this time of anger and hate is to do something meaningful for the person next to them. Over and over, they bring up the need to add a little more love to the community, to the country. “Just try and be kind to people,” says Curtis Welteroth behind the counter of Classic Lines Books, blocks from the synagogue. “Just offer a hand, offer a hug. Try to stop the spread of this.”

When the gunshots came to her neighborhood, Kristen Keller turned to books.

It makes sense: She’s a librarian. Has been for 12 years, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. She’s the type of person who quotes Mr. Rogers, who will tell you a volume’s author even if you don’t ask.

So when a man came to the synagogue a block from her home and shot and killed 11 people, Ms. Keller, naturally, responded with books. A collection on community and coming together that would also feature titles dealing with grief, fear, and death. Anything that might help kids and parents and anyone else to make sense of what had happened, what they were going through.

“Books,” she tells me, “can put things into words that we can’t come up with ourselves.”

This story was supposed to be about the election. I’d set out to ask the residents of Squirrel Hill if what happened on Oct. 27 made partisan politics feel utterly trivial to them, or if it made voting seem even more important.

The answers, at least from the people I speak to, seem to be yes, and yes. Partisan wrangling in Harrisburg and Washington pales beside a hate crime committed so brutally, so close by. At the same time, they tell me, the political nature of the crime in some ways made the act of voting seem more vital, more visceral.

But then, inevitably, they add: Voting is just one thing. They tell me that what really matters now in this time of anger, hostility, and hate is to do something meaningful for the person next to them. Over and over, they bring up the need to add a little more love to the community, to the country.

“Just try and be kind to people,” says Curtis Welteroth, whom I find behind the counter of Classic Lines Books. It’s a warm, homey store along the business strip of Forbes Avenue, just steps from the Carnegie Library and blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue.

“Just offer a hand, offer a hug,” he says. “Try to stop the spread of this.”

Deluge of books

Right after the shooting – after she had tried and failed to explain to her 10-year-old daughter, who had heard the gunfire from their backyard, why someone would hate her just because she’s Jewish – Keller turned to her library. She set up an Amazon wish list of about 30 titles, ranging from picture books like Carin Bergen’s “All of Us” to young adult novels like Jacqueline Woodson’s “Harbor Me.”

By Thursday, she had received about 75 donated books. By Friday it was nearly 250.

On Sunday, as we sit in the library’s back yard, at a round metal picnic table painted playground green, she tells me the tally is at around 500.

“There’s sadly not a book in our collection for parents about how to talk to your kids after your neighborhood has been shattered by violence,” Keller says.

Her son Jonah, who’s 14, and who rubs her back when she falls silent, tells her she should write one.

Keller shakes her head. “I’m not the expert here. I don’t want anybody in the world to be the expert on that.” She pauses. “I’d rather think that nobody ever had to be.”

A resumption of life

While Keller was putting her collection together, her neighbors were coming up with plans of their own.

Sunday morning, Daniel Hayashi is sitting on a street corner, strumming his guitar, a table of T-shirts on display before him. In the days after the shooting, he’d gotten a call from his dad, who lives across the street from the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

It turned out his father had ordered 750 shirts printed with a reworked version of the Pittsburgh Steelers logo, so the yellow star became a Star of David. Next to the graphic were the words, “Stronger than hate.” The family donated half the shirts to the JCC.

“I think this is his way of coping,” Mr. Hayashi says of his father who, while not Jewish, was a regular at the center.

By the time I catch up with him, Hayashi is almost out of stock. People keep coming: couples who buy matching pairs, soccer moms who pick up shirts for the whole family, even a pair of little kids, no more than nine, who have to fish dollars out of their pockets to pay for their purchase.

In Hayashi’s mind, the shooting is symbolic of a need to come together. “Not in such a way that, you know, everyone is going to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ into the abyss,” he says. “More like we need, as a society, something to bring us together.”

Not long after Hayashi packs up his operation, the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues comes to life. Kids stand in line to get their faces painted and crowd around a man making balloon animals. Parents snap photos of a group of teenagers banging away on drums and guitars, a product of the local Sunburst School of Music.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Heather Graham stands on the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues in Squirrel Hill, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Behind her, families take part in Community Day, which Ms. Graham organized to help the community come together after a gunman shot and killed 11 people at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue Oct. 27.

At a yoga studio around the corner, folks take free lessons or use the space to stretch, cry, regroup.

The idea had come from Heather Graham, who owns the European Wax Center on Forbes. Ms. Graham had lived two doors from Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a couple who were killed in the shooting. For more than three years, she had shoveled their driveways in the winter, waved hello to them on their way to synagogue on Shabbat.

After learning what happened to them, she and her fellow business owners decided they would put together a community day, something family friendly and full of life. Something safe.

There was some concern that the effort would come off crass, opening businesses after a tragedy. But joy beats grief every time.

Focus on politics

And Graham didn’t stop at community action. Though she had always planned to cast her vote, this time – for the first time – she looked up every candidate on her ballot. Went through their platforms, read through their histories.

“I wouldn’t have normally done that. I probably would have just pressed the ‘vote for all one party,’ ” Graham says. “Now I feel like I probably should have been doing this my whole life.”

Later that afternoon, as festivities wind down outside the library, Keller admits she hasn’t been to the memorial at Tree of Life of yet. Her husband and son went, but she can’t. Not yet.

(I get it. I had paid a visit that morning, and I – who’d never been to Pittsburgh, never even crossed into Pennsylvania, before this trip – felt the heavy weight of it.)

For now, Keller is focused on what she can do. On Tuesday, she says, she and her family will head to their polling place together, as they always do. They will go before school, because she wants her children to see the process. Jonah, she tells me, had pointed out that by the next midterm election, he’ll be able to vote with them.

“I think every election gives us the possibility to change the course of history – or the course of what’s happening right now,” Keller says. “And maybe that will make a change. I hope.”

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