This City & My Soul

About three years ago, I set out to research and write my undergraduate thesis, a lengthy piece that I called, “The City and the Soul: American Architecture and the Good Life.” In it, I wanted to discern how good architecture and urban planning make us better people. It was cute, what I was trying to do, in the way that a college student talking about the very real world is always a little adorable. That’s not to suggest that I find this prior writing misguided – actually, I continue to stand behind much of what I said back then. But I had no idea what I was talking about. Or, maybe that’s all I had – ideas – and a decent set of books and theories to back them. Continue reading →

How to Live in Times of Fear

Sometimes I find myself walking through my South Philadelphia neighborhood, alone, in the dark. It’s generally okay, even pleasant, but occasionally I’ll see or hear something that makes me nervous. Later, when I’m sitting safely at home and scrolling through headlines and blog posts about things like gun rights or, more recently, refugees, I try to remember that feeling of fear and vulnerability.

I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I suspect that us humans are wired to be afraid of each other. We’re suspicious of unfamiliar experiences or people. And why shouldn’t we be? We have no reason to trust that which we don’t know, or to believe that it won’t harm us. Our bodies and minds simply desire self-preservation. Continue reading →

Coming Home

My favorite part of traveling is coming home.

I tried to think of a way to explain this without sounding like a boring and ethnocentric ass, but it’ll be easier to just tell the truth.

I like America, a lot. Not in an overly patriotic “God Bless America” kind of way (I’m pretty sure millennials aren’t allowed to think like that) but in a lifestyle kind of way. It’s the little things that make me defend my nation to naysayers (who are, by the way, often American): 24/7 grocery stores, air conditioning, big cups of coffee, etc. Nothing idealistic or political, just the things that make my life as I know it easier and more comfortable. Do I think America is the best country on earth? No, of course not. Do I think it’s the best country for me, a happy American? Yes, I do. Continue reading →

Everything in its Time

Hours after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who murdered Eric Garner, the City of Philadelphia lit up a Christmas tree. Normally, it’s a festive event – this year it was interrupted by protestors. It was a strange juxtaposition: Bundled up toddlers standing alongside outraged activists. Holiday decorations upstaged by signs begging “Stop Killer Cops” Carols drowned out by chants of “Hands Up: Don’t shoot!”

It’s always interesting to me when terrible stuff happens around the holidays. Objectively, tragedy is tragedy no matter when it occurs. But whenever something bad happens this time of year – when our society is trying to focus on things like peace, joy, family, and generosity – it stands out a bit more and pulls on our heartstrings a bit harder. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

The SRC & Your Soul

In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.

The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.

After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.” Continue reading →

Flourishing on Two Wheels

It’s almost fall, and I’m especially excited about that because the change in temperature should mean that I won’t break out in a disgusting sweat on my way to work everyday. Was that too much information? Whatever – it’s true. Biking to and from the office is a consistently pleasant experience – something I look forward to twice a day – but it’s taken a toll on my general appearance these past few months. So I’m excited to resume looking like a normal/clean person after my commute.

Now is a great time to be a biker in Philly. To be sure, it’s always been a pretty good time – Philly is naturally a bike-friendly city. It’s flat, compact, and since the downtown was laid out before cars were invented, many of the roads are too narrow for cars to go too fast. But it’s getting even better. Next spring, Philly will be joining the rest of the modern cities by getting its own bike share program (and it’s rumored to be a good one). Bike racks and lanes are always being added, and there’s even talk of car-free streets. Also, the city’s laws are pretty bike-friendly: bikes are recognized as legitimate vehicles, and are allowed to be ridden in the middle of the road. When Philly was recently named the 6th best biking city in America, I wasn’t too surprised. Continue reading →

Developing a City-View

Well-educated people who move to cities are expected to become rather cosmopolitan. Literally rubbing shoulders with dozens of cultures while simultaneously participating in our global economy, these people quickly surpass the limitations of their youth. They learn to interact and live peacefully with people who are quite different from them. They eat stuff that their mothers can’t pronounce, which contain ingredients not sold in suburban grocery stores. Their worldviews are stretched, shattered, and reformed to fit the big world in which they are now a part.    5TAMgojTx

It’s been a little over a year since I started living, working, shopping, socializing, relaxing, and church-going almost exclusively in Philly, and in some ways I’ve become or am becoming one of these cosmopolitan people. However, more than this, I’ve noticed my worldview not expanding as much as it is contracting. What might have once been a worldview has gradually developed into a city-view. Places shape us deeply and affect our paradigms – Philly is affecting mine.

Anyway, given this realization and my recent Philly-versary, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the various ways that this place has warped my logic. In no particular order:

1. I sometimes forget what it’s like to be in a building that is less than 10 years old…

2. …or on a street that was built after cars were invented.

3. I’ve developed a deep mistrust for strip malls and chain restaurants.

4. I’ve gotten pretty good at the transportation logic puzzle (“Should I drive?” “Where will I park?” “Should I bike?” “Will it rain?” “How will I carry my stuff?” “Should I take the subway?” “Do I have enough tokens?” “Is walking an option?” “What about a cab?”), but sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to play it every time I leave my house.

5. I’ve grown accustomed to all of the smells, and all the trash everywhere.

6. My physical comfort zone has expanded, as my standards for what constitutes as a “bad neighborhood” have shifted dramatically (and for the better!).

7. Recently I was outside of the city and hungry. I drove around for a while looking for “something that I couldn’t find in Philly,” until I realized that that’s nearly impossible.

8. When I go more than a day or two surrounded only by white people speaking English, I feel mildly uncomfortable.

9. I think “ugh, tourists” on a regular basis (usually after almost hitting them with my car or bike).

10. It’s become normal for me to regard neighborhoods other than my own as distant or novel, even if they’re literally blocks away.

11. Likewise, my default small talk is to ask people about their neighborhoods.

12. I’ve come to expect and prepare for petty theft. And mice.

13. I can’t remember the last time I saw a squirrel, though I did encounter a raccoon the other night. It made me more nervous than it would have if it was a person rooting through my neighbor’s trash. Wildlife is fascinating, and terrifying.

14. I’m so used to one-way streets that I become extremely confused/apprehensive when cars in the next lane are driving toward me.

15. “Getting away from it all” usually just means going to the suburbs for a few hours.

Federal Donuts, Hunger, and Loving Philly Well

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See, doesn’t that look good? (This picture was shamelessly stolen from the Kickstarter page).

It’s no secret that I love Philly, and every once in a while I come across something that makes me really proud of this city and excited to live here. This week, that happened to me while I was grabbing my Saturday morning coffee and donut at my friendly neighborhood Federal Donuts. Federal Donuts – in collaboration with several other Philadelphia businesses and non-profits – is endeavoring to open up Philly’s first non-profit restaurant. They’re calling this project Rooster Soup Company. I read over their Kickstarter page a couple of times, and decided that this is something that I want to get behind. And I think you should too.

The idea behind this project is simple: they want to take the hundreds of pounds of chicken scraps that FedNuts produces each day (yeah, they sell chicken alongside donuts. It’s not as weird as it sounds, and both are delicious) and use them to make soup. That soup would then be sold in a restaurant, and the profits from that restaurant would go straight to Broad Street Ministry.

Here’s what I love about this plan:

1. The food options in Philly are nearly endless, but the hundreds of restaurants in this city produce (very literally) tons of food waste. At the same time, hunger is an everyday reality for many Philadelphians. This project cuts back on some of that food waste, and will not only eliminate it, but use it to feed some of those hungry people.

2. The folks behind Rooster Soup Company could have just decided to start their own non-profit, but instead, they’re choosing to empower an existing organization. I think that’s a very wise move. Starting a non-profit is no easy task; in addition to additional capital and a specialized skill set, something like that requires time to build trust and develop relationships with clients. Instead, they’re entrusting Broad Street Ministry – which is a solid organization that serves people as Jesus would – to carry out the tangible hunger-eliminating work.

3. On their way to and from work each day, middle and upper class Philadelphians walk past dozens of homeless people. I’m sure most of them are decent people who wish there was something that they could do to help this marginalized population. Rooster Soup Company will make it easy for them to do this, without asking them to go very far out of their way (both literally and metaphorically).

4. This is a project that connects so many groups in this city: a hip business, a radical church, Center City’s homeless population, anyone who will eat at Rooster Soup Co, and anyone who backs this campaign. This is a diverse bunch, and it’s neat to see them all coming together here.

5. This is an extremely creative endeavor. I have no idea how the minds behind this idea came up with it, but I’d really like to see it play out. If it does, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed, and I suspect that there will be even more interesting collaborations like this in the years to come.

6. Soup is delicious, and this menu looks amazing.

With just a little over a week left in their Kickstarter campaign, Rooster Soup Company still needs about $20,000. If you’re interested, and if you can, I invite you to join me in supporting this creative project.

Rest(lessness)

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This used to be my front yard. Ugh.

I recently spent the evening with some old friends, watching videos and reminiscing on the four months that we spent in Italy during our junior year of college. We laughed a lot as we watched ourselves on the screen, seeing and doing things for the first time all over again – things which are now videos and memories. And with those memories came a flood of emotion. As I watched my past-self, I felt once again how she felt in that time and place.

Nostalgia can kind of be like a drug, but I don’t think that’s entirely what was going on that night. As I watched myself, I remembered how much more content I was. During those months, I wanted the days and weeks to drag on – I never wanted to leave. Our lives in Italy consisted of cooking, drinking, dancing, adventuring, reading, and occasionally going to class. We had no real obligations or responsibilities. In the years since, I haven’t been so carefree.

Experiencing some of those feelings again that night, I wanted to go back. And at some point it occurred to me: I can. There’s nothing significant keeping me here. I could quit my job, drain my bank account, and head back to Europe for a season. I could spend my days writing and adventuring, not worrying about my household or career. It would be the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, but it – and I – would be so interesting.

I have significant theological objections to transience, so I don’t entertain these ideas on a whim, nor do I take them lightly. Still, the temptation is there.

Driving home that night, I tried to digest these feelings a little bit and move on. My city’s skyline came into view, and I felt that familiar rush of pride. (I’ve seen so many beautiful things, yet I’m such a sucker for Philly’s skyline). The radio played in the background: “we’re far, far from home and we’re so happy,” and the juxtaposition of sight and sound was striking. I just kept driving. What else was I to do?

That was two months ago. I’m still here.

St. Augustine begins his Confessions beautifully: “For Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee.” I remind myself of this often, because restlessness is easy and popular, but also unavoidable, and inescapable. We will never be fully content, fully happy, in Philly or Europe, as a barista or a CEO. Outside of the Kingdom, our hearts are restless. All we can do is wait until we rest in Thee.