A walk, a conversation, a West Philly community

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All hung about with color, on St. Mark's Square in the Spruce Hill residential district of West Philadelphia.

One Tuesday morning in the spring of 2013, I met Lori Waselchuk on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, where I teach second-semester memoir.

So began our ramble.

Up Locust Street toward 45th, scuffing through the fallen tree blossoms at our feet. South, past the thrum of radio tunes. North, and a pause at the Second Mile Center Thrift Store, then a quick turn east, where we made time for Manakeesh hummus. We walked; I asked questions; Waselchuk confided. Told me stories about the bluegrass played in a second-story bar - Orleans-quality bluegrass, she said. Weighed in on competing coffee shops. Showed me where the artists gathered, where a prized sculpture stood, where the block captains did their work, where two young girls might live out a friendship, where birds might come to nest.

Waselchuk is a visual storyteller, a West Philly resident whose art - created in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Africa, on neighborhood streets, in urban gardens - takes its eruptive power from the found and forged bonds of community.

I am, on rare days, a young-adult novelist, and back then, in April 2013, I had a particular story in mind, a story with West Philly roots. My primary character, Nadia, was an intelligent teen in the early stages of a terrifying neurodegenerative disease. She was a girl whose historian father taught at Penn, whose family occupied a Spruce Street twin, who was about to set off for a year in Florence, Italy, so that her father might finish writing his book on the 1966 flooding of the Arno. She was a girl who was losing language and, at the same time, losing herself to crushing but perhaps also beautiful obsessions.

A Victorian house. An Ivy League campus. Sister cities. Two rivers. A question about the sanity of obsession. My novel was something like that. It was scratches in a notebook. An idea on the hopeful rise. Later, in difficult months, when I struggled to make the story work and the layered themes cohere, the novel was kept alive by that April walk - by Waselchuk's exuberant familiarity with the near-secrets of West Philly.

In time, Waselchuk's West Philly became a transfigured character in the book I wrote. Its topography. Its weather. Its scenes. A version of that Second Mile. Meals at Manakeesh. A community garden. A discovery made in the quiet of the Woodlands. It became a place so festive, so bright, so alive in my mind's eye that I could imagine, within its bounds, my Nadia's best friend, Maggie, dressing the branches of an old locust tree with buckets of crayon-colored poppies. A gesture of love. A proof of friendship. Irrepressible West Philly.

In time, I got that novel written. From One Thing Stolen:

 

She hangs a blue bucket with red poppies. She hangs a green bucket with orange poppies. She hangs a white bucket with purple poppies. She hangs a red bucket with white poppies and every time she does it takes longer and longer as she works the branches and the twigs farther away on the tree. There is a crowd of kids below her. The mailman has stopped on his route. Two cats are in the across-the-street windows watching her every move. When she's finally finished hanging the very last bucket - when the tree is lit up with poppies and buckets and the glitter of the sun, when there's a crowd out there . . . Maggie stands, tall and completely triumphant.

"World's greatest miracle," she says.

I don't know, for sure, what the world's greatest miracle is. But it seems to me community should sit high up on that list, conversation, one person reaching out to another, the sustenance of shared exuberance. It seems to me, in other words, that I owe a debt of gratitude to West Philly and to Waselchuk, who took the time to brightly steep my imagination.

Conversation. Community. Often art begins there. Last Saturday, on a day of gray rain, I saw more proof of this when I once again made my way to West Philly to experience the final afternoon showing of "Ci-Lines," a temporary art exhibit. The exhibit had been installed in the otherwise nearly empty St. Andrew's Chapel, the former Philadelphia Divinity School, at 42d and Spruce. It was the work of Brooklyn spatial artist Aaron Asis, and its genesis could be traced to a conversation he'd had with Waselchuk - and a West Philly walk they took in January. He asked questions. She had answers.

Into the tall, chill Gothic Revival structure I stepped, then stopped. There, across the severe and lovely interior volume, Asis had threaded blue parachute rope - stitching the space together with something both tensile and ephemeral. In the diffused light that fell through the chapel's windows, the intersecting lines looked, to me, like tinted sunbursts. Like a gesture of love, and a triumph.

Spectators moved through the space. Former seminarians. Artists. Poets. Historians. Skywatchers. Children. At least one woman who has cast her heart upon the farthest reaches of the world - the acclaimed author Anna Badkhen - but who has nested, at least for a time, among the artists of West Philly. There we were, all of us on a rainy day in West Philly, looking up and interpreting the criss and the cross. Seeing an old, distinctly underused space as something alive and still vital.

At the center of us, her hair pearled by rain, stood Waselchuk. Her handsome face was broken wide with joy. Her eyes said "miracle."

 


Beth Kephart is a novelist whose new book, "One Thing Stolen," is now available from Chronicle Books. She blogs at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.