Do We Need Beautiful Places?

If you are being chased by a vampire, run into a church; they are the “safe base” in the mythical game of tag that exists in terrible fantasies of roaming bloodsuckers and hounded humans. I think about this every time I walk through a rough neighborhood to go to visit a public school. The school is the church. Any time I feel eyes on me, or someone follows me down a block too closely, or calls out to me over and over and over and over, louder and louder, getting irritated that I don’t respond, I think “get into the school; nothing can happen once you’re in there. It’s base.”

Now, I know firsthand this isn’t true – I was there when one of my students was chased into the school building by gang members in the South Bronx, and had his head bashed in by a hammer while the school security guards watched. We know as a country after Sandy Hook and James Holmes and Jared Loughner that no place – even elementary schools – is safe. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about serial killers, but vampires – or really, the sense that there are vampires watching you and waiting; the feeling that there are people stuck in limbo, eyeing you, who are starved, roaming, unsettled, ready to attack and suck you dry – without qualm – in order to survive. To me, that’s the consequence of urban poverty, which is its own nasty beast – gritty, dark, ruthless, bloodletting.

I was thinking of that this morning as I made my way to a new neighborhood, to visit a new school where I will be helping to coordinate the efforts of POWER, an interfaith volunteer group that brings together my temple and many other synagogues and churches around Philadelphia to engage in community service. We were going to check out their non-existent library and help make one appear.

Walking up the steps at the Fairmount stop – a new stop for me – I realized with an unexpected giddiness that I had no idea what the world would look like at the top of the stairs. I was giddy because this is a new feeling for me; not because I had great expectations. I was so settled in my routine in New York, and so familiar with it, that being geographically surprised was rare. But here it’s different. Bounding up the steps, I was greeted by this:

Fairmount4Fairmount3I started thinking about my old vampire metaphor from days of teaching in Mott Haven, because of the slow men shuffling across an empty parking lot, hands shoved in pockets, eyes locked on me; because of the post-apocolyptic landscape, littered with Lemonehad boxes, plastic bags full of dirty diapers, car fenders ripped off and left in the weeds. This isn’t so bad, I thought. And inside the school it’ll feel cozy. But think about it: this is what you’d be seeing on your walk to school every day if you were a kindergartener who lived here.

What did you see on your way to elementary school each morning?

This is what you would see if you were a child walking to school here.


This is what you would pass every morning as a six year old, groggy from waking up, stomach rumbling for a juice and a pop tart, maybe walking alone.


As a little child, this is what you would wade through; step around; cower against; ignore; be scared of; be repulsed by; be curious about; become used to.

Fairmount 7

I think about this a lot. A lot a lot. A surprising a lot. There is a fad right now (with KIPP Schools, Paul Tough, Positive Psychology, etc.) talking about the impacts of poverty-induced stress on the psyche, and on a child’s ability (or lack thereof) to develop resilience in the face of extreme stress and PTSD. But what about prolonged exposure to the hideous? Deprivation of the beautiful? Being trapped in the disgusting, with no relief? What does that do to a body, a psyche, a soul?

I think about this so much, and dream about ways we could use urban redevelopment to rectify the situation. My dream? Planting more trees and curated green spaces where people can walk and play. Parks, playgrounds, even planting trees outside of homes; it completely changes the tone of a neighborhood. Think about it – don’t the beautiful neighborhoods in your memory have tree-lined streets? And don’t the bad ones have endless expanses of dismal concrete with sad faded graffiti, the closest thing to a park being a vacant overgrown lot?

I have thought this for many years, but it wasn’t until I read this article on “Placemaking” (a term I love) and community that it became clearer to me. In it they suggest the pillars of a strong community are:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

I really recommend anyone interested in public spaces and/or community activism, take a read – it’s quick and really interesting – and then visit the Project for Public Spaces, which has fantastic resources and an excellent blog on placemaking, which are accessible and friendly to laypeople such as ourselves.

After reading that piece, my believe was fortified: these public places refresh the spirit, and build community. They are not luxuries – they are necessary.

If you were given this empty lot I passed on the way to the school, and had permission to build/plant/plan anything at all, what would you put there? Stores? Streets? Apartments? Trees?

Fairmount 6

I think I would build something like Hawthorne park, which is a few blocks from my house – a green square with benches for sitting and paths for walking, bordered by a mix of townhomes and subsidized housing. It satisfies the green element, creates a communal space, and provides mixed housing.


But I’m not sure. All I know is that there’s got to be something better than forcing children to grow up looking at this, day in and day out.

So – what would you build, and why?


4 thoughts on “Do We Need Beautiful Places?

  1. Overwhelming YES! We need beautiful places and need to teach our children about their potential. Reading today’s post I was thinking a lot about the broken window theory that was piloted in Harlem – “In sociology, the “broken-windows theory” holds that if a neighborhood or city doesn’t fix its broken windows and graffiti, the environment will continue to descend into crime, chaos and violence.” (

    It is so important that we allow children to hope – if they see nothing around them that inspires it is no wonder that they cannot dream.

  2. Just wrote a novel on your more recent post so this will be super brief – do you know Roger Hart? Look into him. Aside from being a totally dashing Brit, he does wonderful work with children all over the world designing community & school play spaces/environments. Really interesting stuff. xx!

  3. Pingback: Tree Huggers | Civicization

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