If you cook it, they will come…

Happy springtime!

A quick story to share with you about some impromptu small-scale community organizing:

As the warmer approached, I figured that it was time to do a spring bbq with my housemates. Which we’d generally do on our back deck. But then I decided to invite the whole block. Would they come?

I know a lot of folks in the neighborhood, but not that many of the folks on my own block. There’s a couple apartment buildings, and with our different schedules, it’s easy for us to be near neighbors without ever seeing each other. I’d thrown together some impromptu flyers and dropped them off at the doors with just one day’s notice, so I wasn’t sure if it’d be just me and a few housemates, or what it would look like. So I started the afternoon off with a pile of pita and some music on the front porch…

(Playing WPEB 88.1, West Philly’s own low power community radio station, of course…)

I had a bunch of random supplies lying around…

… and had prepped a pile of veggies to grill…

… and stood there alone on my porch prepping up a big pile of food, wondering if it was naive to hope for my neighbors to all show up on such short notice…

Of  course, I knew that I’d had at least a couple housemates to keep me company, and then our neighbor Aliya stopped by to drop off a big stack of hot dogs & condiments, so we were off to a good start. Worst case scenario: lots of leftovers.

And then, all of a sudden, everyone started showing up. Both neighbors who’d gotten the invite, and others from nearby blocks who were just walking by and stopped to join us.

We met folks who’d lived across the street from us for three years whom we’d never met…

… and all sorts of great neighborly connections were made, as the gathering that had been set for “~5-7pm” stretched on till nearly 10pm.

I’m particularly grateful to my housemate Selah for taking over the grill – after this point, I had some food myself, and spent the rest of the evening in engaging conversations with old friends and new. No more photos from here on out…

So the pictures that I’ve shared are quick cellphone snapshots, not my finest professional work as someone who’s called themselves a ‘photographer’.  But I’ve been thinking more and more about the meaning of that word, which means not “picture-making” but literally “light-writing”… and so thinking more broadly about my role in both writing light into the world, and writing about the light that can be found there if one just opens one’s eyes to it.

I used to think of my main thing as the photography business, with things like hosting house concerts as an ancillary hobby. But I’ve realized that actually, my community photography projects like How Philly Moves and The Image of Yoga or the residency that I did at NMAJH have a lot more in common with these community gatherings than they do with my commercial picture-making. It’s all one artistic practice that uses hospitality & celebration (and sometimes photography) for community-building.

So I’ll be continuing to figure out how to nurture that practice, and it will no doubt involve more giant pots of lentil soup.

In the meanwhile, I share the story in the hopes that it might inspire a few other folks to do something similar on their own block. It does take a little bit of extra work to organize this kind of thing. But not much. It’s certainly simpler to stay home and turn on a tv show. But it turns out that right next door are a pile of extra awesome folks, and maybe the only thing that they’re waiting for to become a part of your life is an invitation.

If you cook it, they will come…