The Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain--home to the author of this thoughtful meditation on the importance of community in today's urban environment--possesses the characteristics demographers predict will dominate the American urban landscape by 2025: 41 percent of its inhabitants are college graduates and work as carpenters, plumbers, teachers, artists, drug dealers, police officers, etc. The neighborhood has one symphony orchestra, two community theaters, three libraries, one arts center, six art galleries, 18 playgrounds, 19 churches, and two bowling lanes. Fifty percent of its residents are white, 33 percent Latino, 17 percent African American; 31 percent of the neighborhood's inhabitants fall below the poverty line. And it is in this incredibly diverse, wonderfully offbeat quarter that Kathleen Hirsch has found a place to belong.
Hirsch moved to Jamaica Plain, or "J.P." as its residents call it, in the summer of 1990. It is, according to the author, "a snob's no-man's-land, a Boston neighborhood down at the heels for so long that only its loyalists can quite see its quirky charms." Hirsch becomes one such loyalist, as she introduces the members of the community that help to make J.P. so special, from the urban gardener to the local storeowners to the lawyer turned community advocate. In an age when people feel more isolated than ever, this eloquently rendered personal journey through a city neighborhood demonstrates that community is neither as inaccessible as utopia nor a convention of yesteryear, but a real possibility for the present and the future. --Kera Bolonik
From Publishers Weekly
Hirsch has written of homeless women in Songs from the Alley and now she reports on one woman's home?her own. Her portrait of Jamaica Plain, a 5.5 square-mile neighborhood in urban Boston, is full of nostalgia and soft colors. She loves JP, as Jamaica Plain is called locally, and the feisty community that has held on in the face of urban rot. As she reconstructs the many small but vital triumphs won by zealous individuals, she also offers fascinating portraits: Eddie Ortega's transformation from drug dealer into the 22-year-old director of the local YMCA, 73-year-old native Ruth Parker, who has known everyone in the neighborhood and who relishes, as Hirsch puts it, "the magic and the muddle of being human together." It's the gritty details that bring this story alive, so when Hirsch wanders off, as she often does, into philosophizing about community and her deep feelings for it, the book suffers. "We are the stories we tell one another," she claims, "the myths we live by... because our days in a place deposit their own truths like minerals in our bones." Before misguided urban planning led to the decline of Jamaica Plain, Hirsch's mythic JP seems to have existed in a haze of neighborliness without abandoned stores or lots. The unanswered question is what happens next: Hirsch reports that friends in search of good public schools are leaving for the suburbs, and as she surveys the local elementary school, one is left wondering where she'll ultimately send her young son. The energy needed to hold such a disparate community of races, cultures, economics and education together is enormous. We can only hope Hirsch found some answers.
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