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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, May 31, 2012 7 years ago

Neighborhood love story: A re-beginning

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by: April Doner

Months ago, I jumped at the proposal that each of us TWISlers take on a story in the form of a love letter to one of their favorite places or people in Sarasota. As my "love interest," I chose my neighborhood, Gillespie Park.

Well, little did I know that this would be the spark to fan a flame that has been sleeping down deep in me, and that this flame would flare up mightily in the coming months, consume all of my previous plans and priorities and leave me here: hopelessly and happily given over to a passion for which I now feel glad to hand over my heart in a full-blown love affair.

Looking back, it's actually a lifetime, long-time-coming kind of story with a recent catalyst. I was working at the Sarasota Film Festival last month, quite sure that after the Festival, I’d go back to my efforts to build an art career for myself alongside a strong, creative community organization known as Uprise Art Collective. Yet there’s something about being pulled straight out of a daily routine that gives one a special kind of clarity. Amidst the endless hours of box office work day, a weird kind of understanding emerged for me about what I really want to be doing with my time. It was an underlying impulse that I can only call domestic --- a strong desire to buckle down in my home, nurture and genuinely connect with the places and people closest to me, including myself.

And this wasn’t just a feeling like, “Oh, yeah it would be nice to ... ” --- it was more of a roaring, rumbling, very real gut hunger that also made all kinds of sense. It hit me gradually that for years and years, I’ve been tossing lovely ideas over a wall inside my head called “One Day.” Those things often included all these neighborhood-centric things such as:

  • - Planting a garden
  • - Spending more time at home cooking and cleaning (yeah, I’m weird ... I really dig that stuff)
  • - Building relationships of connection, care and collaboration with my neighbors and between my neighbors
In my subconscious, I pictured all of this wonderful stuff making sense for me to do when I reached that great “One Day” dream every little girl grows up fantasizing about (well, many little girls at least): getting married, having kids and "settling down.”

But hang on! I want to do this stuff now! Why should I wait for the guy, the baby and all that stuff?

For me, this hands-on connection and engagement with the place where I live is not just some nice complementary dressing to the attainment of an American Dream family. This is a love affair that I need to have with or without all of that other stuff. It’s simply meant to be.

Throughout my life I’ve sought out and held a stubborn faith in that great elusive chimera of modern society, Community. It’s the thing that, during my flirtations with various political ideologies and lifestyles from teenagerdom through my college years, I’d always come back to as something I believe in and know is good to build. When I finished college, I worked at a nonprofit and helped develop a "Neighborhood Initiative" based on the idea that many of the social ills we try and fix with imported professionals, experts, and programs can be well handled at the neighborhood level when there is cohesion, trust, care and cooperation among neighbors. (There’s tons  of research backing this up including this recent article from The American Prospect.)

Going back even further, as a kid I was absolutely crazy about two things: exploring my neighborhood and collecting business cards. I knew those streets better than any of the residents in the retirement colony where my dad lived post-divorce. I also had this weird sense that there was a special richness in the stacks upon stacks of business cards I amassed. Each card represented something of value: a name --- a person --- and something they were good at doing --- a skill, craft, art or service.

But somehow, coming as close as I did to my passion while working at the nonprofit, I never did anything in my own neighborhood. I led workshops on the value of connecting neighbors and honoring their leadership power. I flew to Chicago and Indianapolis to connect, teach and learn with others equally passionate about this stuff. Ye, every time the aching thought of my own role in my own neighborhood would surface ... chuck! There it went, over the wall into “One Day”-land.

And now here I am, realizing that “One Day” is today and that I can’t deny my 'hood-roving, card-collecting connector DNA any longer. I’m excited as a smashed beehive, and one of the reasons I’m telling you all of this is that I plan to extend my TWIS column from that one gushing love letter to Gillespie Park into a kind of walking log of my neighborhood-connecting experiment --- as a way to celebrate the journey and to welcome you along in my adventures.

My first plan of action is to begin documenting more fully the great folks and fascinating treasures I’ve come across so far. I even have a partner in crime: Victor, age 8, who lives down my driveway and has already proven himself a neighborhood “rover” of equal if not stronger enthusiasm (more on him later).

I expect this adventure to be lucrative for me, and hopefully my neighbors, on a number of fronts.

First, we’ll gain the gratification that comes from simply knowing who and what is around us.Second, I expect to develop useful relationships of exchange with those who live around me. I already know that I can walk two blocks and buy some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted, made by my neighbor Leo Rojas;  I can step into a magical wonderland by visiting the Children’s Garden; and get tons of groceries and some kickin' authentic Mexican fare (and smiles) at Bianca’s Mexican Store. I've also discovered a tango dance studio, led by a German fellow named Albert who is more  passionate about Argentinian tango than anyone I've met in my life. What else is out there that I need? Who might need my various skills --- cleaning, art, child-watching, listening, writing? What could be better than finding clients or barter buddies who live a few doors or blocks away from my home? Besides being cool, imagine how this could cut into my gasoline bill ...

Finally, I can already feel the gratification that comes from doing what I know in my bones I was born to do. I am a community connector and a neighborhood explorer through and through. There's nothing quite like what I've been feeling since that unexpected epiphany that found me in the middle of the Film Festival Box Office --- the feeling of giving myself permission to begin, or "re-begin" the love story with my neighborhood I've been dying to live, ever since I could first navigate my block and shove cards in my pockets.

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