The Fight: It Don’t Come Easy

By Emaleigh | It is difficult to write about failure and seemingly insurmountable problems. I know that the photos on our website are bright and shiny, and our reports of success are filled with numerous exclamation points. There is always ‘the other side.’ The struggle to rejuvenate W Rockland Street and the surrounding neighborhood has been a massive undertaking. Systems are slow. Change isn’t fast enough. It’s hard to make progress stick. What my sister and I have accomplished in the past four years, alongside our neighbors, is significant – it’s amazing actually! But its not always fun. There have been arguments and tears, lots of quitting (and starting over), and too much stress. And this week has been rough… Listening to Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” is usually a cure, but it failed this time around.

Why do we do it?

We think our work emphasizes the needed shift in culture and responsibility in Philadelphia.

All we are trying to do is improve quality of life on W Rockland Street – through beautifying the neighborhood, connecting people, and giving purpose to long blighted vacant lots. Its time to repair the damage anyway we can, and transform abused and underused spaces into places of productivity and pride. We live here, after all. We wish everyone felt the same.

This is not a pity party, just the truth. The work consumes more hours than you’d believe, eats up more money than you know, and sometimes, feels like time wasted. There will always be people who don’t want to get involved, who react negatively, and don’t understand (or care) how difficult the organizational side of the work is. Managing expectations is tough, especially when unrealistic, and some people can be incredibly demanding, which is shocking. (Guess what, being a ‘block captain’ is not a real job. The City is not your mother and neither are we.) It is harder to accept all this when the work is home – the work is where you live – and all you’re trying to do is make life just a little bit better. We are beyond thankful to those that participate and work alongside us.

We lived with this vacant lot for years and years. It is owned by the City of Philadelphia, overwhelmed with properties just like this and worse. Do we blame “The City”? How hard is it to maintain land like this in our neighborhoods? Who is going to step-up?

The reality is that Philadelphia is a real urban city and we’re in the thick of it. There are issues pushing us that we cannot take head-on. Philadelphia’s public education system is in crisis. 1 in 4 Philadelphians live in poverty. The city has an estimated 40,000 abandoned properties and vacant lots. Many of Philadelphia’s streets are lined with aging houses in declining conditions, like W Rockland Street, like our own house. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands…

Formerly vacant rental property on W Rockland Street. Interested in living here? Landlords are not in the same boat at the City. Guess who is to blame here?

We have never been the kind of people who can sit back and do nothing. We figure, as long as we are here on W Rockland Street, we’ll do something. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” President Theodore Roosevelt once delivered that quote and it’s a good one to fall back on. The idea is clear and worth trying yourself, wherever you live.

Our objective has always been to disrupt the cycle of neglect plaguing parts of the city, starting with W Rockland Street. We’re interested in seeing what ideas and projects work here that can be easily replicated throughout the city and in similar neighborhoods.

W Rockland Street is a work-in-progress. We have not solved all the problems, but with our neighbors, we’re making a difference.

A better Philadelphia will never be realized if we’re not all active citizens – in the way that we each can be. And there is no one way. Don’t just sweep in front of your own house, go three houses up and three houses down. Have a conversation with your neighbor, even if you think you have nothing at all in common. Get a group together and clean up a vacant neighborhood lot. And keep at it. Live by example. Show that you care.

It’s up to each and every one of us to step it up in the places that we call home.

Here is one idea. You can turn this –

A weed trap

Into this –

New sidewalk garden! Courtesy of Ainé.

You’ll be happier walking down the street.

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