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Fall 2017

On Neighborhoods

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W. S. Di Piero

In Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing,” he visits the remains of his childhood home and recalls where the door was, how the floor felt, how his mother sat “staring into the fire” while her fiddler husband “bowed it higher and higher.” The last two bittersweet lines, “Everything glowed with a gleam / Yet we were looking away,” remind him they couldn’t possibly have been aware of the harmonious moment while living it. They were oblivious, happily so. The moment is what the poem tries to catch up on. We’re always late for consciousness, neuroscientists say. And there are durations and degrees of lateness. When conversations turn to the trials of keeping up with the accelerated present, I say I’m still trying to keep up with the past.

If you grow up in a concentrated, tribal, old-style working-class neighborhood, as I did, you’re in the dream and can’t see it, conceptualize it, or even short-term remember it, as you eventually will in time. It’s a mossy nutrient medium and you’re the bacterial culture growing in it. You don’t control much. I spent more or less the first twenty-one years of my life in an insular, redbrick, South Philadelphia neighborhood, a village really, unaware how the place, its physical and emotional climate, was saturating my consciousness. The surround (voices, odors, sounds: the givella-water man shouting his arrival, the fresh manure hot from his horse, the rocking tock-tock of his wagon—this was the 1950s) composed, and in my head continues to dilate, an entity greater than all of its pieces. But I was oblivious to what was forming me and modeling my mentality.

To outsiders, a neighborhood is mostly local color. Live there, though, and local color is your life, invisible to you. When I finally moved away, my neighborhood, where there were no gardens, became a subject in my garden of writing: something was always growing or dying there. I think of it as the Matter of South Philadelphia (as one speaks of the Matter of Britain): it can’t be my property because it doesn’t belong to me, it is me. To honor my own looking away, I act in good faith to the material by re-imagining it: the re-imagination of the place is a preservative and maybe, maybe, makes me a little less late for consciousness.

I’ve now lived in San Francisco, in the same apartment in the Upper Haight, for twenty-two years. The surround has been stitching itself to my being, I’m sure, though it’s not the First Place that South Philadelphia was. It’s more a set of clothes I wear, baggy or too tight, silky or itchy. The difference is the consciousness, the seeing—of the self, the ambience, the dynamic that’s engaged when I’m being witness to what I’m already a part of. I’m less late for consciousness but still prickly about local color. It calls attention to itself, it fondles too cozily the details of neighborhood life, it craves to be admired or adored. Local color doesn’t disclose value or inquire into value. It’s mostly a collection of icons. It estranges poets from their material and becomes the kind of irony that baffles revelation.

I spent several years in a neighborhood on the Peninsula south of San Francisco that I never felt to be my neighborhood. The “my” matters. Everyone around me referred to the place as the “neighborhood.”

Let me back up. I lived for three years in the historic center of Bologna, next to the old Jewish ghetto that was also once the red light district. It was a neighborhood, like any neighborhood worth the name, with sensual textures and definitions that became memorable even while I was inhabiting them. A neighborhood requires sidewalk velocities (which require pedestrians), daily noise (or streetside sound design) particular to the place, and people greeting others. I’m still not looking away from Bologna. It’s also different from other places I’ve lived because of its historical strata, down through the Middle Ages and Dante to the Romans and Etruscans. My neighborhood was antiquity. You hear visitors speak of Bologna as elegant, friendly, sophisticated. My birthplace, on the other hand, is of a kind that people who have never actually experienced it like to call gritty, colorful, real. In its raw ways, it’s enchantingly other for everybody except us. And yet in 1950s and 1960s South Philadelphia everybody owned a house and car: it was, still is, nudged along by the razor-fingered American Dream. Eventually it created in me a comic, contrary, perverse consciousness: in order to feel like I’m living in a real neighborhood now, I can’t own a house or car, have a driveway or a dishwasher. This, I admit, is creepy, autocratic, and precious.

But back to my overcast times in an exceedingly bright place. For six years I owned a house, the only one I’ve owned, in Redwood City, California, which I never felt to be my neighborhood, whatever my property rights. Though it must have been a neighborhood. My neighbors called it so. There were no redwood trees in sight. It couldn’t possibly be a neighborhood (I felt) because outsiders would find no local color there and I couldn’t feel any palpable textures. It reinforced my sense of what a working neighborhood has: easily available public transport, walking distance to markets, hardware stores, eating places, cafés, nail salons and hair salons, saloons, dry cleaners, laundromats, and an ongoing itemizable list of casual personal infrastructure. Redwood City had a few strip malls and a shopping center, as suburbs do, so it could never be my kind of neighborhood. It may have been nutrient-rich for my neighbors, who were mostly working-class people in the building trades, landscaping, and law enforcement, but I was a sickly failing culture in it.

What is the suburban? A physical (and moral) locale where the entity of the space doesn’t have a life greater than the lives of its inhabitants. It lacks grace. It’s not a culture of wealth so much as one of markers, icons, large garages, lawns, citizens who prefer taking walks to walking. The flâneur, the idea of the flâneur, is existentially irrelevant, though there are many friendly looking dogs, outdoor grills, and a profound observance of quietude. Not city, not country. A neighborhood, like the San Francisco one I’m in now, is defined by the body, mine, moving through space shared with other bodies, with signature styles of dress, gait, smell. A neighborhood is a measure of individual and group capacities, of what the body can do—walk, shop, meet and converse with strangers, get on and off and in and out of streetcars, buses, Ubers, cabs, and occasionally witness or intervene in a street ruckus, though the Haight isn’t classically self-policed the way South Philadelphia was, where no man on my street owned a gun but all had baseball bats by the front door in case of unrest amongst street villains or public women-bashers. My own experience is only what it is, it’s not representative; but I’m still catching up on understanding why I never felt at home in the neighborhood where I lived in the only house I’ve ever owned.

Simone Di Piero's most recent chapbook of poems is The Man on the Water. His prose book, Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness, will be out this fall.

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