Thursday, August 26, 2010

Street Envy

Welcome to the Albany Home Zone. This block, maybe half a mile away, has transformed itself with curb extensions to calm traffic and expand play areas. The home-zone concept, which originated in the UK, appeals to the wonderfully vagabond sensibility of this block, which says streets should be for people first -- not cars.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, when this neighborhood was considered too dangerous to market, a group of socially-conscious friends -- many of them from the cycling community -- started buying property on the block. Those with multi-units drew kindred spirits, until what they'd created was a community within the community.

It was with that critical mass that the block was able to lobby funds for the home zone. I envy them that. I think of how difficult it's been to tackle similar problems on my own block. Even neighbors' petitions for something as simple as speed bumps have run into, well, speed bumps, from car lovers and Libertarians alike.

I've often wondered what we could accomplish with a group of friends together in a finite geography: My own dreams have veered more toward the driftless region of Wisconsin, or maybe metropolitan Detroit. It's easy enough to imagine: A happy enclave of like-minded people, creating a sense of home out of a shared will and vision.

And then I take the fantasy a little further: The potlucks and the barbecues. The coparenting and built-in dogsitting. The reading groups and swapped garden harvests. The knitting groups. The organized bike rides. The spontaneous conversations in the street. The ringing doorbells and telephones. Going gray together. Taking a morning jog and bumping into someone who might ask to join you. The concord and communion. And likely for me, and the challenge to carve out a moment alone.

As I try to catch my breath, I realize: I don't belong in an enclave.

I guess I like choosing between a quick wave and a longer conversation. I like the mirage of anonymity. I might gladly trade Libertarianism (and litterbugs) for speed bumps, but not for consensus, because even though others may stay sharp and curious regardless, I get lazy without something to bristle against.

I like our Sox fan neighbors, our churchgoing neighbors, our foul-mouthed neighbors, our opera-singing neighbors, even our hard-partying and persnickity neighbors. I don't see much potential for sustained collective involvement in projects together. But we sure throw a mean block party. And we managed to create a splendid corner garden, which I have to admit is prettier than speedbumps.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everyone needs a hobby

You never know what you're going to stumble across on your way to the local taqueria. These scenes grace the window of what I believe is a loan office on our busiest commercial corridor -- a strip designed more for cars than pedestrians. Then again, if not for taking bustling streets on foot now and then, you'd never come across the lost art of storefront taxidermy, which apparently entices some to take out a loan.

Because I appreciate the handiwork, I'm going to put my fingers in my ears and assume no creatures were harmed in "Raccoon Digs For Toy Surprise," "Squirrel Calls it Maize," or "Lounging Otter with . . . Test Tubes?"

Regardless, I have no room to judge when I'm on my way to a lunch of tacos al pastor.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Look at something pretty, play in the dirt

We've been waiting years to see some improvement at our local elementary school. It's a beautiful old building named for James Monroe, which makes you think it might have a little more, I don't know, ambition. But for the last few years, the building and its grounds have stagnated. Indifferent principals and lacking resources have made for a lifeless site where there should be energy and vision. It's no wonder the kids sullenly walk into school and often stir up trouble when they leave.

Enter my friend Dawn Marie. She runs a local nonprofit arts agency for neighborhood kids. They teach everything from dance to painting to circus performance to spoken-word poetry. In partnership with a new, enthusiastic principal at the school, she was able to put together a program that would actually get the kids involved in transforming the vista of their school.

First step: A school garden. They built planting boxes out of recycled materials and are now seeing the fruits of their labor come to life. Tomatoes, corn, "the hottest pepper in the world" -- a garden that reflects the cultural heritage of the students. Our new neighbors, Conor and Tim, live across the street from the school and are raising backyard chickens. I was able to connect them to these efforts, and they've already arranged one visit by the kids to learn about chickens, eggs, and the importance of letting animals roam free.

Next step: A mural. I wish I'd taken a Before picture of this cement wall so you could see how desolate it made the playground (really a giant asphalt lot with some broken-down plastic equipment) feel. But refurbished, it's a focal point of the grounds.

Oh, about those grounds: A soft-surface playlot is in progress. They've already started drilling into the concrete to make room for construction. And in the grave left behind by the old playground equipment? An expanded garden!

I'm sympathetic to the hardships most Chicago Public Schools principals are facing. Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 program ties a school's survival to the students' performance on standardized tests. Many principals and teachers feel all they have time to do is teach to the test. It's a deplorable way to run public education.

This makes it all the more exciting to see a school -- set in its ways, and grateful for mere survival -- reinvigorated this way. I have to believe, if we're stuck with Renaissance 2010, that these students will fare better on tests because of the new vigor in the school. The improvements remind the kids that they should be defined by more than a gray slab of concrete or Scantron form.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

If birds could talk . . .

A friend walking his dog last week was surprised to stumble on this scene:

Yes, that's a chicken sitting on the sidewalk next to a metal trashcan. The poor girl barely stirred and appeared to be injured. My friend had no luck reaching Animal Control, so he came home and started sending out alerts: First to our mutual friend Noah, an urban gardening enthusiast who keeps a flock of backyard chickens. Concerned, but unavailable.

Second to me, so I sent a note to two newcomers to our block, who also keep a coop. They reached out to the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts, a Google group well equipped to help with the situation. I was feeling a bit better, so I refocused on my work, assuming our feathered friend would be in good hands soon enough.

Later that afternoon, a second SOS from my friend. The chicken was still in the exact same spot, as was a police officer on his phone, trying to call the proper authorities, and an older Latina woman who claimed the chicken was sitting on a bed of pennies -- a bad omen, she said, and it was best not to touch her since she must be carrying a hex.

Ah, Santeria season. The time of year we often see signs of animal sacrifice throughout the neighborhood -- one of our neighbors once found a dead goat in the dumpster behind his house -- and I have to assume that our chicken may have been a lucky escapee from an impending ritual.

I learned later that she was eventually picked up by a decidedly nonsuperstitious bird rescue organization, who would assess her condition and nurse her back to health.

What a curious time and place we live in, I realized. The collision of dogwalker, police officer, religious observer, and wayward fowl. The idea that you might come across such a creature on a morning walk through the city, and that same city might provide various conduits to resolve this dilemma, as if the world was anticipating it all along.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Our Lady of the Jungle Gym

Now this is a sign from above I can squarely get behind.

Yesterday, as I walked past this venerable corner church, two adorable kids with posterboards shouted, "Car Wash! Tacos! Car Wash! Tacos!"

"Are you raising money for the playlot?" I asked them.

"No, we're raising money for our church. We think it might close."

Even an athiest like myself took the news right to the breadbasket. This church is the closest thing we have to a community center. Their parishioners can still choose Mass in Spanish, and the priest rides a bicycle. I've voted there, met with my local police officers there, eaten arroz con gandules and potato salad with my neighbors there.

The paradox wasn't lost on me that the same lot they used for the
car wash is the one that promises a green playlot by fall. Their best source of fundraising may be given over to a sorely needed amenity on the block. May the church survive and the O. Henry story play on.