Fall in Love with Your Neighborhood

On Sunday, we are moving to a new neighborhood. We found a little house to rent in a historic area of Boston. It is painted a deep red and has a postage-stamp yard where we anticipate hanging up white lights and sitting on patio chairs during late summer nights in September.

This house has come at a high cost – not money wise, although rents in Boston are high – but emotionally. It is the cost of leaving too soon, the cost of transition, the cost of not knowing what is next. This house is also priceless – it means we have an address, it means we have a neighborhood, it means that we can create a home. The juxtaposition of those two truths has been present throughout the process of finding this place.

As I anticipate moving and creating space and home, I also think about this new neighborhood that we will be exploring. A year ago it was Kurdistan, and a government-issued apartment. Now it’s Boston, and a little, red house. Both take courage, adventure, and being willing to fall in love with place.

Last week my daughter wrote a short piece about her neighborhood, accompanied by a picture. I loved it. I loved the word pictures, I loved the message, and I loved the challenge. I share it today, because it may be just what all of us need.

If you ever feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood. If you ever feel lonely, walk down the streets and notice what you never do because you’re in a rush or you’re tired or your brain is too full to notice.

Notice the gardens overflowing from the second floor balconies. Notice the kids bikes with training wheels leaning against fences, telly you stories of people trying and falling and still trying agian. Notice the kitschy garden decor, always in season and telling you that someone who has made a home lives behind that fence. Notice the hammock on the porch, begging to be swung in and telly you to hang a lil more. Notice the bees buzzing in the lavender, telling you that nature isn’t some distant thing, but it’s two steps from your front door.

If you ever need to feel anything, to feel connected, to feel less like a stranger, fall in love with your neighborhood.

Talk to the lamp store guy and he’ll give you a free cushion for the rocking chair you bought from him last week and show you how to fix an old lamp. Talk to the cashier and she’ll tell you how to take care of your Pixie Peperomia. Smile at the dog who lays over for a belly rub and give him the best belly rub ever.

Just fall in love with your neighborhood and remember that it needs people to love it so that it always remains as magical as it’s always been.

If you feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood.

S.S. Gardner

Bucharest to Boston: Little Immigrant Girl


“Be honest with me…Did you just ask me to come with you to Seattle because no one else could?”

The words took me by surprise. They were from Mariuca, a capable woman and excellent trainer. “NO!” I said emphatically. The truth was, there were any number of people who could have been asked that would have loved to be a part of the trip, but I hadn’t even considered them. “Good!” She sighed with relief. “You have to understand, I still see myself as a little immigrant girl, and can hardly believe I’m traveling across the country to do a training.”

At 26 years old Mariuca came to the United States. She entered the country a year after 9/11 with her airline allotment of two suitcases, the clothes on her back, and a whole lot of love for her American husband. Enough love to warrant a move from her childhood home of Bucharest, Romania to a new country and city, Boston, Massachusetts. At the airport in Bucharest her mom pressed a one hundred dollar bill into her hand and said “just in case you need it.”

Trained as a lawyer, she quickly realized that she did not want to go through the grueling process of reciprocity that it would take to practice law in the United States. Her profession was partly chosen as a result of her mother being a lawyer and having a dream that some day a mother/daughter team would practice law together. The mom’s dream ended and Mariuca found a job as a receptionist in a large city medical center. Daily the center welcomed people from around the world, and with a lot of people comes a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse groups, a lot of different languages, and even more needs.

Most who passed by the cute, energetic receptionist with the “accent” would never have guessed that behind the smile and ease were two seemingly contradictory things – an educated, confident lawyer and a little immigrant girl. Both worked in Mariuca’s favor. The background as a lawyer made her a brilliant problem-solver and an articulate advocate; the scared little immigrant girl gave her a deep empathy for patients and a willingness to go the extra step to ensure comfort and care.

Her skills were noticed. Mariuca ended up being promoted to an interpreter in the dermatology department, followed by a move to Women’s Health where she took on the role of a patient navigator. Ultimately she ended up where she is today – a supervisor and a trainer.

From lawyer to patient advocate and supervisor, Mariuca has made a home for herself here. She is well established in both career and community and has a beautiful little two-year old girl. But no matter how successful she is, there are still days when she feels like a little, immigrant girl with two suitcases and an unknown future. This is the place where she was as we traveled from Boston to Seattle and it was my job to remind her that she is a capable, amazing woman – that even if she was a little immigrant girl, she had worth and gifts, they were just undiscovered.

I’ve been told that an important part of care giving for Alzheimer’s patients is understanding what the patient’s life was like before they had Alzheimer’s disease and their memory betrayed them. One of the ways to do this is to post pictures of the patient on their door, showing people a little bit of who they were, and what things were important to them in the past. A physicist, a Nobel laureate, a firefighter, a mom – if we remember who they were, we may be more careful about how we treat them as they are. Seeing them in their current reality is only one small piece of the picture of their lives. I wish the same was true for immigrants in our communities.  I wish we had pictures that told more of the story behind the accent, that showed us the past life of a cleaning lady or cashier. It would be simultaneously eye-opening and humbling.

Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television personality, used to sing a little song as he would put on his grey, worn sweater. “Who are the people in your neighborhood?….These are the people in your neighborhood”. As I end the post I paraphrase his well-known words: “Who are the immigrants in your neighborhood?” Are they lawyers turned patient advocates? Doctors turned home health aides? Biochemists turned medical assistants? Do we know who they are? If we don’t we have only a small piece of a big picture. As the clichéd “nation of immigrants”,  knowing each other a little better could go a long way in increasing understanding

“If This House Could Talk” – A Cambridgeport Tradition

Between MIT and Harvard University, just off the river, is Cambridgeport. For those who live here, it is a lovely neighborhood. It’s in the city, but still has the feel of a smaller place – safe and walkable, with grocery stores, coffee shops, and drug stores all within walking distance. Yearly, Cambridgeport puts on a program called “If This House Could Talk“. The program takes people on a walk through the neighborhood, where various houses, parks, restaurants, churches and a few other places are selected, a short history written on them. It is a great way to walk the neighborhood and learn more about the past, even while becoming more familiar with the present.

As we walked part of the neighborhood this weekend, we learned that the Kennedy Biscuit Factory a few blocks away was creator of the well-known American cookie – the Fig Newton. We found out that the church on the corner near our house began in 1960 as a mission to children of dock workers who worked on the Charles River and almost shut it’s doors in 1970.

Walking down Magazine toward Central Square we passed our favorite neighborhood restaurant that serves up gyros and pizza with a strong side dish of opinion. The owner, Theo, came from Thessaloniki and treats us to family recipes with a Cambridge diner twist.

An apartment building up the street has several interesting stories. One story is told of an immigrant from Colombia, Maito Auger. As a beautiful 36 year-old, she was asked by a friend one day if she would like to go to America. She laughed and said “Yes, if you bring a limousine to my house I will go!” Read the rest of the story below!

The building Maito lives in is called Woodrow Wilson Court and is a collection of nine different buildings. It is named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson, partly because during his presidency the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed.

Another story coming out of this set of buildings is the one below, which will still remain a mystery. Any one want a plot for a novel? This scandal may be just the inspiration that you need.

On Cottage street, one of my favorite streets in Cambridgeport, largely because of the number of cute “cottage” type houses, we passed by several houses with varying histories. The one that caught our eye was the one that informed us that Ben & Casey Affleck had grown up next door, and rumor has it that their mom still lives there.

Heading a few blocks to the right, we made our way back home down a street called Pearl. At Speridakis Terrace we stopped and heard what the street would tell us if it could talk! “A 1913 teenager sent to the Industrial Home for boys after a tea shop heist, a spirited 1929 bride who changed her mind on her wedding day” and more! This street was named for a Cambridge native who died  in combat during World War II.

We learned that Sylvia Plath’s counselor lived a couple of houses around the corner from us. We learned that Model T’s were made in a beautiful building across from the Charles River. And we only saw half of what there is to see. It was a creative way to link past to present and create an appreciation for the neighborhood and the history that precedes us. It also helped to draw us to a greater sense of belonging, a reminder that we are part of something and not on our own.

So, if your house could talk what would it say? What is the hidden history behind your street or your favorite restaurant? Whether you live in a historical or newer neighborhood, someone came before you and if our houses and streets could talk, they would tell us that life was lived with all it’s challenges, joys, complexities, scandals and tragedies.