In her book, A Home in the Heart of a City, Kathleen Hirsch labels each chapter with a verb:  “Walking,” “Working,” “Making,” “Playing,”  “Associating” etc. in order to make clear to the reader that the heart of community is acting and doing.

The essential point she conveys is that communities thrive when they are comprised of people that are more like verbs than nouns.

The first chapter of the book, entitled “Walking,” illustrates this seemingly basic act:  moving your body along, using your feet through local space, up and down hills, past people, day in and day out.  Hirsch describes how a simple activity such as walking builds community.  Walkers who pass each other learn to acknowledge each other and then learn to acknowledge that they share “an abiding attachment” to the unique and singular place in which they are walking (p. 15).

But Hirsch cautions, (quoting Thoreau):  “Every walk is a sort of a crusade.”  You never know whom you might meet, or what experiences will cross your path. While walking is the most straightforward way to begin to be part of a place, it can be disquieting when one does not know where it might lead.

Hirsch’s book recounts the revival of Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain Massachusetts, which began with the walks of a local resident Christine Cooper. The once beautiful heart of Jamaica Plain was the pond that “had become a haggard, decrepit thicket … children were warned to steer clear, the elderly kept a cautious distance” (p. 9).  The old dilapidated boathouse was “filled with the stench of urine”.

But Christine Cooper began walking there, starting an unheralded cleanup effort on her own. This led to participation of one other walker in her efforts, which eventually led to gatherings of strangers and neighbors, which led to reopening of the boathouse on the pond, the creation of youth activities, and ultimately the revival of Jamaica Pond. None of this was planned but rather emerged from people passing through and slowly connecting with each other.

In a world of virtual communities and virtual reality, we tend to forget the power of locality, of place, and the ancient human skills (like random daily walking) necessary to make these places blossom.  Hirsch reminds us “the struggle to create a home in the world must be engaged daily, within walking distance of where we are” (p. 16).

Hirsch, K. (1998). A Home in the Heart of a City