The Battle for the Hill
Have you ever noticed something as simple as the leaves blowing across the street? And not just noticed them but been so happy you could cry? That’s how I felt when I was walking along the street in Allison Hill with a youth group who had come to join us for our clean up day. But it wasn’t just the leaves - it was the absence of trash that made my heart so happy. We were a miniature army walking down Swatara Street with our rakes, trash bags, and leaf blower ready to tackle the deadly giant of litter and in our wake we left a street that was free of litter and leaves.
Our feet trod across historic brick sidewalks that had been uncovered just this last summer. What had been a carpet of grass that you had to walk on if you wanted to get off the street, now was a beautiful brick sidewalk. We passed art murals that covered the abandoned shells of condemned buildings with color, mulched flower plots where once only weeds grew and new planter boxes that brightened up the concrete patches. As the army of youth marched down Berryhill, a man driving by called out “Thank You!” and a lady on her porch told us how much she appreciated our work.
There was almost a sense of celebration and hope in the air as our team moved on valiantly removing litter and dead leaves to maintain the streets of our target area from last summer. A little ways down Berryhill, one of our neighbors noticed we ran out of fuel and enthusiastically offered to give us fuel to keep our leaf blower running. We saw a man coming up to us not too long after with a shopping cart full of grocery bags. He stopped us and introduced himself as Cruz. He said he had brought this food for us! The youth excitedly opened the bags to find all sorts of chips, snacks, water, soda and juice for us to share.
With our loot in hand and smiles on our faces, we marched back to the headquarters for lunch. It had been a wonderful morning of experiencing the hope and diversity of a beautiful neighborhood. The troops were in good spirits ready to attack the next giant of the afternoon.
Our leadership squad discussed the afternoon plans and decided to take a little bit of a different plan of attack. We would send our victorious crew into uncharted territory. They would cross the boundary line of South Allison Hill and venture further North towards Market Street. Several of our scouts had recently reported an uprising of litter in that area of the Hill and it needed to be addressed without further delay. Knowing the urgency of the matter, I immediately went out to the commander of my squad and informed him of the new plans for the afternoon. Who knew what we would find…
Following the directions my leader had given me, I led our band of youth down 13th Street for about 5 blocks until we were almost to Market. Then we swerved to the left and there it was - the uprising. You could hardly see the leaves for all the trash on the streets. What had once been a small park was now completely overgrown and full of random bulk items. If you looked closely through the weeds you could see several bricks that were stubbornly holding on determined to remember the day they had once been a brick path. Down both sides of the alley were heaps of trash and broken furniture. The trash bags in our hands seemed weak weapons in comparison to the enemy before us.
Two guys getting out of their car across the street, looked at us suspiciously. One called out as we approached, “Now don’t you go get into drugs!” People sitting on their front steps or relaxing on their porches gave us sinister glances as if to say, “Who do you think you are waltzing into our hood with a bunch of white teenagers?” Now of course this wasn’t my first rodeo so I ignored the comments and started dividing up the team to conquer the area in the time allotted to us. I moved around amongst the troops helping the ones that seemed to be struggling and keeping an eye out for any sketchy behavior.
As I joined the group of youth on the next block, I could feel the tangible hopelessness and skepticism in the air. The youth were still ploughing away but seemed to be moving slower and losing motivation. I hoped that joining forces would boost the morale of the troops. Ahead of us lay the worst block - an abandoned house beginning to collapse with piles of trash all along the sidewalk. In addition, a handful of rough-looking fellows and a lady were hanging out on the side of the house staring at us with disgruntled looks.
Before I could give orders, the lady on the steps approached one of the youth leaders, “You guys don’t have to do this block. There’s a lot of trash and some of the piles have been there for who knows how long. I would hate for you to pick all that up. We were actually just going to clean it up today. You can leave it for us to finish.” Simple enough, right? But something inside me got mad - mad that she was trying to kick us off their drug spot, mad that she thought we were so naive we would nicely go off and let them do their thing without a second thought.
“Actually, we’ve removed piles much bigger than this and I’ve been helping do it for the past three years,” I responded. “We don’t have a problem taking care of this and helping you out.” However, as I said this I sensed a hesitancy in my comrade, I pulled him aside out of earshot of the lady. I had no problem pushing on but as a general I had responsibility for my troops and they didn’t seem so sure. After talking to the commander of the youth, we decided to retreat. Unknown to me upon hearing the news, Captain Herman came out with a whole fleet of fresh recruits and knocked it out only a short while after we left.
Meanwhile, my troops and I started the long trek back home. The squad leader who the lady had started talking to came up beside me - “I want to ask you a question, but please don’t take it the wrong way…” (Now what had I done? What was he about to say?) “Why do you guys pick up trash?”
You have to understand something - being trained for battle in a place like Allison Hill under the fearless leadership of Tannon and Cristina, you learn that picking up trash is a weapon in and of itself against hopelessness, against poverty, against apathy and against almost everything that plagues our neighbors on a regular basis! So, for him to ask that question was almost the equivalent of asking, “why do you use guns when you go out to fight?”
As I began to answer this young man, I asked some clarifying questions and began to realize that the deeper concern was not really why we pick up trash but how the civilians in our neighborhood received this “weapon” of picking up trash. Did they feel empowered? Or did it remove them of dignity? After all, as the lady had said, they technically could do it themselves. I began to share story after story of neighbors who had experienced this“weapon” of love and had emerged filled with hope and fresh vision for their lives. The squad leader seemed encouraged by the stories and receptive to the answer I gave. I returned to the home base with my troop - tired from a long day but satisfied with the victories we had won.
This whole conversation made me realize that there are two weapons at play in this neighborhood, not just for our neighbors but for everyone who sets foot in this community. One weapon is HOPE - it looks like taking ownership, serving, going low, investing in the community, etc. The other weapon is APATHY - it looks like “I don’t care”, “nothing matters anyway”, isolation, every man for himself. Now I want to ask you a question - if you were to join the battle for your neighborhood, what weapon would you choose?
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