Yes, of course I’ve heard the one about how you can’t go home again. To that I say, it helps if a big part of you never left the ancestral ‘hood.
That’s the capsule version of my lifelong relationship with Northwest Philly, the part of the city in which I grew up, and where most of my family still lives. As of today, it’s where I work, as I begin covering land use, planning and development for Plan Philly and NewsWorks.
Now, don’t tell my new colleagues, but I’m pretty sure I’ve stumbled into the best beat around here. As explanation, I offer my theory of local news coverage — call it Quinn’s Hyperlocal Holy Trinity — and what people really want to know about their towns and neighborhoods.
Of course this isn’t scientifically proven (who’s got time for grad school, anyway), but in my experience as a reporter, editor and now journalism teacher, I find most local news fits roughly into three overlapping categories: money, crime or land use.
Crime is pretty self-explanatory, as folks rightly crave information about their community’s challenges, even if we all sometimes just use cops news to reinforce our own fears. For money, think taxes and elected officials, and any place where public cash is collected and spent: governing bodies and schools, of course, but more prosaic concerns like trash collection and the local firehouse.
That leaves land use, and for me, it’s the sweet spot. Stories about the built environment are born when the life we want to live overlaps with, and sometimes butts up against, the tangible world around us.
There’s a lot of what you’d call “process” involved here, designs and reports and studies and codes to be deciphered, but that’s not where the real news is.
Land use stories germinate in planning boards and zoning meetings, on architectural renderings and in master plans, but they grow and ripen out in the neighborhood. Stories about development happen in church vestibules where old ladies meet on Sunday to swap chit-chat, and on the front steps where neighbors gather to cluck their tongues about how things are always changing.
That’s the mindset I’ll bring as I embark on this new assignment.
It’s not just writing a story about a building, but how its design affects the rest of the block, not just noting changes to the zoning code but doing it in a way that reveals, rather than simply reports.
It’s tough to ignore the role land use plays in our lives if you’re like me, and grew up in a rowhouse with a public school yard for your neighborhood play space. I learned early lessons in urban planning by jockeying for parking spots with school buses and gathering out front to giggle at the tractor-trailer drivers who’d unwisely try to negotiate the spot where Hermitage Street dog-legs into Smick, around Consolo’s Bakery.
Or, where it used to.
The Consolo property, an oversized corner plot boasting the street’s only driveway and ringed with century-old rose bushes, was bulldozed a couple of years ago to make way for a dozen rowhouses with garages underneath.
Thanks to Facebook, the ‘Yunkers — many who, like me, had moved from the neighborhood years ago but kept active ties — had a place to swap their old photos and wistful remembrances and wish things could be different.
These are, at their heart, stories about people. To the residents and readers of Northwest Philly, I invite you to help me tell them.