7:41am on January 5, 2022 on N. 23rd Street Philadelphia

A Reflection on #Shared Prosperity

I live in a corner row house in a historic neighborhood with lots of families and people from all generations. Within a few moments I can be running along the Schuylkill River or walking in Fairmount Park. A highly desirable public elementary school and playground are within a five minute walk from my house. The Philadelphia Museum of Art anchors our neighborhood to the west and the national historic landmark of Eastern State Penitentiary is at its center. There are coffee shops and restaurants along the main avenue. Prosperity abounds here.

And yet, four houses down, 12 of my neighbors died in a horrific fire at the start of this year. Yes, this is the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia. The whole country now knows about our little corner of the world.

My husband and I have lived in various apartments and houses in Fairmount since 2002. (Fairmounters tend to stay for the long haul.) We moved to our current house three years ago, once our family outgrew our starter house.

The first person we met on our new block in July 2018 when the movers were still unloading our stuff was Quintien, who was probably about 13 years old. His stunning smile, outgoing personality, and kind manner were very welcoming. He wanted to know all about us. And —

Over the last few years we saw less of Quintien as he became a teenager and started high school, and even less so once Covid started and no one was leaving their houses much. Now we won’t see him at all. Quintien died in that fire, along with his mother, siblings, aunts, and cousins.

The duplex units in the row house that caught fire are part of a program that offers housing units for low income families in different areas of the city and helps create more mixed-income neighborhoods. Quintien and his family lived in their apartment, nestled in Fairmount, for over 10 years. They enjoyed the same quiet streets, playgrounds, and small businesses that my family does.

This tragedy exposed, as so many things have in the last few years, the fragile existence of too many people living on the edge, even in places that seem to be stable and thriving. Once the tragedy happened, my neighbors and my family — and the rest of the world — found out how many people were living inside. The enormous loss of life was directly tied to the lack of affordable housing units in this city, and our country, in general.

My neighbors — just a few houses away — were living in a situation that the rest of us might consider untenable and unacceptable. However, what can be seen as overcrowding was likely the best possible option for Quintien’s family. Yet, why were the rest of us so unaware of their vulnerable living situation and the tragedies that could befall them? What would we have done if we had known?

Over the years, we all politely sidestepped one another, as city dwellers tend to do. We nodded hello, we made small talk, but we generally kept to ourselves. Which leads me to ask, if neighbors on the same block feel anonymous or awkward because of a lack of shared trust, how will we get closer to a shared understanding — or a shared humanity?

This tragedy happened in plain sight, on a nice block, in a good neighborhood. Clearly, we are failing as a City, and as neighbors. We’ve got to do better. I have to ask myself: is it even possible for Philadelphia to reach a shared prosperity where every family has enough space, food on the table, childcare access, and a safe place to live?

I don’t know how we will get there because the issues are overwhelming and the solutions complex, but I suggest we begin with one neighbor at a time, like Quintien. We can all learn from him. Get to know your new neighbors. Introduce yourself to the ones you only see every once in a while. Check in on the elderly man living alone, the exhausted single mom, and the PHA house down the street with a lot of young children playing outside. Hang out on your own stoop a little longer, offer a hand, and don’t make assumptions. So next time a neighbor stops by and says, Say, — and then —

By the end of that tragic day, the sunset over the city looked like this.



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