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Unexpected turns at block party


This has been a good summer for my family. We have taken time for bike rides around the city, camped on the shore of Lake Superior and enjoyed our front porch -- the coolest spot in our house on warm evenings. It’s where we play cards, listen to the August crickets or just sit and talk.

Two years into our new neighborhood, we still miss the easy camaraderie of our old block, merely five blocks from here. Our neighbors there started out strangers and became friends. It’s hard work starting over again to build trust and find common ground among the randomness of people who happen to buy houses in close proximity.

Almost by default, we’ve taken the lead in organizing our block’s activities. We are willing to door-knock for signatures, make flyers to invite neighbors to events, set up tables in the street and plan activities, solicit prizes from neighborhood merchants who are sometimes skeptical of our efforts. I am sometimes skeptical of our efforts: What do we, the educated, white, suburb-raised folks, know about organizing a multicultural urban neighborhood? How can our middle class values not conflict with our neighbors’ life experience -- of immigration, being minority in a racist society, of working for minimum wage for a lifetime? How can our tentative bonds, based on sharing an alley or a view from the front porch, turn into something more?

We occasionally long for the easier emotional territory of a more homogenous part of town. Still, we believe we have the skills and the vision to make a difference in our little corner of the world. And we continue to believe that part of living our faith is responding to the call to chip away at the barriers of class, race and language that divide our society -- and that we wouldn’t be doing our kids any favors by eschewing the diversity of city life for a big green yard and better-kept homes.

This year our block party drew a larger crowd than last, though our picnic potluck was a contrast, as my husband noted, to the abundant potlucks we are used to, where dishes are homemade and delicious. Here, more showed up bearing bags of chips and pop than with lovely fruit salads and savory casseroles.

But our neighbors came forward with other offerings: Some of the kids on the block had made a piñata on their own, with just a little assistance from the grownups. We were treated to a show by our resident puppeteer, who involved the children in a lively performance that included drums, song, masks, puppets and role-playing. One guy who works at a fast food restaurant brought extra plastic toys from the chain’s kids’ meals to distribute to all the little ones. Kids rode their bikes in the street as adults slapped mosquitoes and swapped stories about their houses and history on the block.

I had put a lot into that evening and felt like the cruise director on a ship sailed by a motley crew. There was a woman who runs a local organic restaurant continually shifting her very pregnant body in her lawn chair. Her husband is the puppeteer. Here came the neo-hippie green activists, toddlers in tow. There was Mike, who’s lived here for 45 years and a widow for the past three. Over there, Esther and Rodrigo, Rosaura and her daughter Kimberly, who speak little English, sitting together on their front lawn, smiling at my intermediate-Spanish invitation to come and join the party but shy about digging in. Maricruz and Fernando, 9 and 11, from the apartment building on the corner, came without their mom, who works the night shift but had made yummy salsa for the kids to bring to the party. We met some new neighbors, including a Swiss couple with a 2-year-old girl. We were glad to see Becky, a single mom of two teens. She’s been the real anchor on the block, having weathered its highs and lows for 20 years.

In blew a gaggle of kids on their own from somewhere else, who I guessed were hitting all the National Night Out block parties in the area, scoring the best treats and games. They joined in our water balloon toss and homemade piñata a little, ah, overly enthusiastically. We adults had to ensure that some of the smaller kids on our block got their fair share of the loot from the broken piñata, but I guess we were feeling magnanimous toward the interlopers.

Not long after, I heard an excerpt from a speech by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas. She talked about how community building -- making our community life inclusive and democratic and safe and accessible for all -- is not ultimately the responsibility of government or community organizers or any institution. Rather, it comes down to each one of us, what we are willing to do as individuals, the kind of relationships we are willing to build. That, too, I believe, is the ultimate gospel message, though Jesus put it not in terms of civic responsibility, but in terms of the heart -- that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. In other words, eat their Cheetos with a smile, even if we’d rather have a good potato salad with our bratwurst.

So my family and I will continue to negotiate our path, continuing to invite our neighbors to join us, however tentative our bonds may be at this point. Hey, next year, maybe I’ll even learn the Spanish word for “potluck.”

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000