Claire lives in South Philly. Her neighborhood resembles nothing else so much as a small town. Although the Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area sprawls across five Pennsylvania counties, she is a resident of a finite community that is self-aware and self-confident.
Small towns are often depicted as small-minded.
To the contrary, the Jim Thorpe where I grew up was remarkably tolerant. Take for example the single block on Lehigh Street where I lived with my parents and brother Leo. Two doors down were the O'Donnells… two brothers and a sister, all three a few cards short of a full deck. The aged trio lived quietly together in a decrepit house they shared with an uncounted number of cats. They also kept chickens in their backyard. Occasionally, Mrs. O'Donnell would amble into the yard, snatch up a couple of luckless hens, and wring the heads right off them. The birds would run blindly around the yard, spurting blood from their necks, not realizing they were dead.
Along with the chickens, the O'Donnell yard was home to a man who was even older than the O'Donnell sibs. We knew him as Rump. I'll leave the reason to your imaginations. I guess he received a monthly Social Security check. At about the same time each month, he would venture out of the shack he inhabited and off down Oak Street. Some hours later, he would return with a large bottle in a large paper bag. He and his bottle would disappear into his shanty.
Between the O'Donnells and our house lived a family headed up by an entrepreneur. Ron embarked on many ventures. His house was on the Oak Street side of the block. On the Lehigh Street side, next to our house, he had a large garage. Once upon a time he went into the potato chip business. Making the chips produced plenty of greasy black smoke. When he ran his chipmaker while my mom had wash on the line, turning her sheets and pillow cases from white to black, words passed across the hedges. His subsequent foray into heavy equipment created no such contention. A bulldozer and backhoe beside our house posed no problems.
At a time when the coalmines were closing and folks were relocating to Jersey and Philly for work, it was understood that you and your neighbors had to make out the best you all could…whether that was raising chickens or frying chips. I call that a working definition of tolerance.
I read somewhere that the greatest number of people anybody can realistically get to know and recognize in a community - be it a village, a town or a neighborhood - is somewhere around 150. Getting acquainted with the 151st guy or girl poses just too much mental strain. Maybe this helps explain why small towns coalesce, even - or perhaps especially - in the midst of several millions in a teeming urban/suburban sprawl.
We humans depend on trust, even more than we rely on the law or the police or any other formal institution. Familiarity breeds trust. You don't need to know every neighbor's name. But you need to know that they know what you know: that you are all part of a "small town" that tolerates each of us, so long as we keep the whiskey in the shack, the shirttail on our backside, and the chickens in the yard … and let mom know when the black smoke is likely to be billowing.
When I moved to the city, I expected to become completely anonymous. Maybe I'd know my immediate neighbors to the right and left of my house, but I couldn't imagine anyone else would even notice I had moved in (aside from the woman who was deeply exasperated with my friends and I for blocking her car in with our U-Haul truck).
Surprisingly, I've had lengthy conversations with almost every person I've encountered on my daily walks with my dog, Brody. I would be inclined to guess that it's simply the allure of a cute pup, but almost no one ever stopped to chat when I walked my dog in my parents' neighborhood in the suburbs. Nope, it seems there's something to my dad's theory of coalescence.
In fact, nearly every block in South Philly is it's own distinct neighborhood - mine is marked by two Irish pubs directly across the street from one another (because in our neighborhood, one Irish pub wouldn't be enough). As you might imagine, there are also many shamrocks adorning windows and front doors, and Mummers parade through our streets far more often than once per year.
And then there's the stoop-sitting. Stoop-sitting is a recognized and honored pastime in our neighborhood; back yards and patios are constantly eschewed for the lure of the front step, where people can shout hellos to one another and gossip with passersby. I've met many of our neighbors this way, and even recently told my fiancé that we should be sitting outside on our front steps more often.
I thought that moving to the city would mean a lifestyle too fast-paced for friendliness, but it seems South Philly is exempt from such stereotypes. We're sort of the "Cheers" of Philadelphia, where everybody knows your name.