“They’re trying to ruin paradise.”
That’s what a neighbor told me on Sunday, a day on which he says he heard gunshots — again.
Having lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years, the neighbor, who did not wish to be named for this blog post, says he remembers when the block on which I live was a horse farm. He remembers when an old Italian neighbor grew grapes on a vine in his garden. He remembers, quite simply, when things were different.
But I remember something else — something that struck me last week when I read of the drastic change in another Philadelphia neighborhood nearly eight miles from my own.
From shelter to catering kitchen
The story might have seemed innocuous to most Philadelphians. In fact, many of us would have read that the Ridge Avenue Shelter is now Chef Stephen Starr’s catering kitchen and lauded the progress of the Fairmount neighborhood.
But for me, the story of the shelter’s closing was more than a tale of change, because the shelter, and all that it represented during the months when I slept there, is the reason that I fight so hard for home.
During a time of great difficulty in my life, a time when I was kicking bad habits and re-enrolling in college after having dropped out, I lived at the Ridge Avenue Shelter.
It was there that I began my writing career by chronicling what it was like to live in the shelter system. I can still remember the first article I wrote.
Telling good from bad
It was intended as an essay for my drug and alcohol counselor — an essay I wrote while sitting at the lunch table on the shelter’s third floor. However, when I showed the piece to Susan Jacobs, a woman who volunteered at the shelter, she passed it on to Linn Washington, an editor at the Philadelphia Tribune. Shortly after that, the story was published.
Eight books and 19 years later, I still relish the moment when I saw that first article. Reading my name in print gave me a feeling of sheer jubilation that started me on the road to recovery.
To be sure, it was a moment that began with my ability to tell my own story. But in many ways, it was a moment that was made possible by that shelter.
Living at the shelter gave me the burning desire to go beyond kicking the drug habit that got me there. Indeed, it gave me the impetus to become a homeowner, to invest in a community, to raise a family and watch it grow.
I’m doing that, and I’m pleased, but there’s so much more to do.
A framework for progress
I want every child in our neighborhood to ride their bikes safely like ours do.
I want every senior to feel secure enough to take a walk around the block.
I want to know that neighbors feel safe enough to work together openly.
But as my neighbor said when I spoke to him on Sunday, when you go beyond the two-block radius where we live, it’s like walking into a different world.
I understand that different world. I’ve been a part of it. But now I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a community. Still, my desire to protect what we’ve built here is not about returning to a paradise that’s been lost. It’s about avoiding a past that’s been overcome.
Ridge Avenue Shelter helped make me the man I am.
Maybe that’s why I’m so sad to see it go.