Whenever the topic of social capital comes up I’ll say to my wife that Duncan Crary, a Troy, New York cheerleader, would know more people in the neighborhood after living here for 9 days than I would after 9 years; it’s just the nature of who he is and who I’m not. I was able to put a corollary to my Duncan Crary hypothesis to the test through a recent visit from Johnny Sanphillippo. We had never met but we had gotten to know one another through our work for Strong Towns.
Johnny and I share a common interest in places which are under-appreciated, under-utilized, and, perhaps, misunderstood. We couldn’t be much different in our methodology, however, when it comes to how we go about our study. Johnny visits new places all the time, scouring the landscape in search of a combination of data, better understanding, and stunning visual representations of what he perceives. I live in my particular model of an under-appreciated, under-utilized, and misunderstood place and try to come to a better understanding mostly by sitting on my couch and thinking.
Johnny said he was looking forward to seeing Springfield through my eyes, but of course, I would be much better served by seeing it through his. I know that there is quite a bit I have a hard time seeing clearly, there are so many places here in my hometown which I still see as they were when I was a kid or as I want to see them or as others have convinced me they are. It would have been really eye opening, I think, had Johnny never heard of me, never read my blog, and yet had visited Springfield and written a piece on the state of my city.
What he has written is masterful and does a magnificent job of describing my Springfield Strategy: “Live beyond your means within your means”, or perhaps (if you’ll pardon my English) “Live well by living wrong”. Beyond that, knowing what he likes to see I took him to two places, Gasoline Alley, and the Indian Orchard Mills, which I knew would give him glimpses of what he wanted to see.
But I have a confession to make (To you dear reader, not to Johnny, he already knows, I know): These are not really my places. Another friend, who has lived here less time than I’ve been blogging, had to remind me of the existence of Gasoline Alley. I had been there, and to the Indian Orchard Mills perhaps a handful of times in my life (they’ve been around for decades) before Johnny came to town, and seeing them with him made my greatest deficiencies both painfully obvious and horribly clear. I observe, but so does he. And then he barges in, takes pictures, asks questions, asks more questions, laughs and comments, sits and talks, stands and walks, says goodbye…and he’s off to the next place to do it all over again!
To my credit I was inspired enough by Johnny to start up a conversation with a man who, as it turns out, had just finished running a workshop at his hydroponic farm on a part of the property which didn’t used to be part of the Alley, but was instead a retailer of used building materials; a place I did visit many times while refurbishing my house. I introduced him to Johnny and…the next thing I know we’re getting a personalized tour of his operation. Magic. Turns out he’ll be selling his produce every week at a farmers market just 10 minutes from my house. Good to know for weeks when our CSA or our backyard isn’t fulfilling our produce needs.
The whole experience made me vow to open up a bit more, to widen both my circle of interests, and my ways of knowing. Standing back and watching has its esoteric and antiseptic merits there can be no doubt, but to be “comprometido”, to engage more directly in the struggle can lead to even greater rewards. Partly due to being inspired, and partly as an offshoot of the reaching out I had done to prepare logistically to show Johnny around I had been reminded of an event in my old neighborhood; at the place where my wife and I held our wedding reception. There I saw Jack Wysocki, the hydroponics guy, for the second time in a week, I talked with a candidate for city council and he complimented me on a piece on my blog, and I walked down some streets that I hadn’t walked for decades. Streets that reminded me of what I love most about my city; Vietnamese old ladies watching kids play in the streets, two girls speaking Spanish haphazardly walking a dog while clearly gossiping about something, the back door to a pizza shop,open to let out hot air, revealing the chatter of the cooks. I crossed mid block, like I used to, and went into the Bing theater.
The Bing, where I watched the world end more times than I can remember, once or twice in “sensurround”, and where my own life started fresh again with Elizabeth. I owe it to her to explore a little bit more some of the other parts of the city; the places Johnny Sanphillippo and I didn’t even get to like the North End, and places outside the city like Holyoke…or Chicopee. I’m not even sure I know how to get to Chicopee. We’ve never explored West Springfield or Westfield. This summer we hope to go back to Europe again, but maybe in the interim we should get to know where we live just a little bit better.