It’s snowing today. This snow’s beauty lies in its falling down, reflected in the street lights. But that beauty fades as it hits the ground, mixing with the messiness of the lives which have passed this way throughout the day. Its promise dies as it becomes tied up inextricably with the dirt, trash and discarded mess which are mere symbols of structural inequality, poverty, cycles of abuse and destruction and violence, marginalization, and isolation from centers of power. The debris of the American dream.
I live in an inner-city neighborhood called Kensington in Philadelphia. Over 42% of our neighbors live below the poverty line, 46% have less than a highschool education, and most are unemployed. The neighborhood’s primary industry is the drug trade. Ours is a community full of violence and chaos, addiction, abuse and poverty – but it is also full of hope and beauty and good people trying to improve their own and neighbor’s lives. We are not naive about the challenges Kensington faces; nor are we overwhelmed by them. Fundamentally, we believe that another world is possible and that maybe it starts by dreaming, by relocating to the broken and neglected places of empire, by living with our lives what we speak with our mouths, by being good neighbors. We seek to re-spark imagination in our interactions. We have built a beautiful neighborhood park at the end of our street, and a neighborhood garden where folk can grow their own vegetables, we run a food distribution, and give out blankets and toiletries and bedrolls when folk knock on our door. We do homework help three days a week with kids from the neighborhood, throw holiday parties, hand out school supplies to over 550 kids, celebrate birthdays, put bandaids on scrapes, share our chocolate sprinkles, make popcorn, open up opportunities for summer camps, and play in the fire hydrant in summer. Most importantly we try to live our lives on our streets. And we always seek to dream.
A few short weeks ago, I thought that most of our neighbors had lost their imagination, their ability to dream of a different way. Many have. In places of violence, war, conflict, poverty, destruction and despair the privilege of dreams is often secondary to the necessity of survival. For others, years of walking a trail of broken dreams has only served to crush any hope for a future. I do not doubt that there are many in my community who have lost their imagination, their daring to hope and dream.
But I have also learnt that I have not had ears to hear the many dreams that do exist on my block. These are streets of pain; but they are also fields of gold. Some are dreaming of an orchard at the end of our road. Another longs to see an aquarium where children can learn to run their own businesses. Someone wants to paint all the post boxes on the block. There are dreams for a compost business which will serve Kensington, a vegetable garden which will feed our block and provide low cost healthy food to our broader community. A neighbor has a file full of contacts for emergency services, heating, food, jobs and education which she pulls out anytime anyone is in need. Someone else has a file full of clippings from magazines and printouts from online – of fences and parks and benches around trees. Someone sweeps our streets each morning – and each day it fills again with trash. But for those few hours this is another world. And slowly others are joining in.
I dream of the day when these dreams become stories celebrated not regrets mourned. I pray these dreams breathe life into the here and now, in the time when these dreams are not…yet. I dream that the debris of the American dream can be swept off our block so that the snow can fall, creating a new world on our streets.