Mama Says – Inspired by neighbors doing their part
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, January 2006) This past August, I decided to take a different route home from Greenwood Park, and I chanced upon West 37th Street.  As isolated little Cleveland streets go, it’s pretty average. The houses are mostly older, in need of repairs. Here and there, the yards are littered with broken plastic toys and car parts.

But there was something on West 37th that made me wish to walk up and down its cracked sidewalks, then go around the block so that I could walk down them again. Someone who lives there had planted zinnias in his or her yard. Hundreds and thousands of zinnias. And then tended them until they all seemed to be in a state of sudden, glorious, simultaneous bloom.

When I saw the zinnias, the first thought that came to me was, “Someone is doing his part.” His part to make Cleveland livable, her part to cure what ails this city. By planting a couple thousand zinnias, this gardener — who may have had in mind only her own pleasure — was applying a balm to a civic wound.

The same can be said for the two women I recently passed on West 58th Street. Leaning on their snow shovels for a chat, they were also doing their part. For all I know (I didn’t stop to eavesdrop) they may have also been having a good old gripe about their crummy neighbors. Didn’t matter, because the upshot was that they stood at the center of a stretch of shoveled walk at least half a block long. By all appearances, they had each cleared two or three houses’ worth of walk.  

The first thing I did when I got home was to clear my own walk and put down salt.  It took fifteen minutes.  Had I not encountered those two women and their stretch of lovely, smooth, ice- and slush-free sidewalk, I probably would have slunk into my backdoor with some vague, guilty worry about how the letter carrier was fairing today — a worry which I would quickly forget as I fixed myself a cup of tea and moved on to the rest of my day.

All over the city, there are encouraging signs just like these. Take, for instance, the house on West 41st Street that although half hidden by the roadway as it rises over the railroad tracks, is nevertheless decked out in sparkling holiday lights every December.

Another example: a few years ago, at a time when I was feeling especially inclined to abandon Cleveland, I happened to notice a little row of marigolds set out along the curb of an especially desolate stretch of Train Avenue. I’m still here. Maybe I figured that if someone could love Train Avenue enough to plant marigolds there, then I could love Cleveland enough to tough it out here.

I’m not sure how far marigolds and sidewalk salt go toward fixing Cleveland’s troubles. Christmas lights don’t create new jobs.  Zinnias may distract passersby from the potholes in the street, but they don’t pay for the asphalt to fix them.

Nevertheless, the effect of all of these small efforts is cumulative. Moreover, each person who is caught raking the leaves out of the gutter inspires three or four other reluctant rakers to do the same.

This year, we’ll have a new mayor, probably a new school CEO. A lot will change, maybe for the better. One way to help that happen is for the rest of us to join these neighbors that are already, in some way, doing their part.


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