Review of ‘A Home in the Heart of a City’

A Home in the Heart of a City

Kathleen Hirsch
North Point Press

 It's an out-of-the-way place, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, or "J.P.," as the residents of this Boston neighborhood call their turf. "No one who comes to Boston to view the SS Constitution makes a side trip to Jamaica Plain," notes author Kathleen Hirsch of the place she describes as a "snob's no-man's land, a Boston neighborhood down at the heels for so long that only its loyalists can quite see its quirky charms."

Hirsch moved to J.P. in the summer of 1990. She was in her mid-30s, in search of "that most rare and vanishing of life-forms, authentic neighborhood life." What she found was "a crazy quilt of groups, distinct traditions, and differentiated residential neighborhoods that overlap and crisscross one another in hundreds of different ways."

Hirsch made this leap of geography, and faith, from a decade of living in Boston's Back Bay, a tony neighborhood of cappuccino bars and upscale art galleries where she discovered that her "assumption that, in the course of living and socializing in a place, my roots would reach down into bedrock and anchor me to life in the fullest sense had proved naive."

Hirsch's exploration of her inner landscape — the beliefs and hopes that brought her to J.P. — lean toward the heavy-handed. Her writing is at its best when she looks outside herself, introducing the reader to Jamaica Plain and the people who live there. "This is their story," she says, "the story of what is still possible in our lives, even in the heart of a large American city."

If all the residents of J.P. are as colorful and sympathetic as the ones in the book, one can understand why Hirsch is so taken with the place. There's Christine Cooper, a poet and artist who, in the early '80s, single-handedly began the successful restoration of Jamaica Pond, today one of the crown jewels in Boston's Emerald Necklace, a string of parks that ring the city.

The reader meets Winky and Charlie Coherty, who had fled J.P. for Warren, Michigan, a place of "tidy brick ranches and perfect green sod," only to discover that they missed the chaos and cacophony of J.P. — the "sweaty neighbors out holding hoses just waiting for a good yarn to turn up." The Cohertys, observes Hirsch simply, "lasted a year, before they decided to return home."

A Thriving Community Garden

There's Kathie Mainzer, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who has turned a bar where "gunshots and knifings had once been de rigueur" into a popular pizzeria. We make the acquaintance of Peter Rosenbaum and Sue Naimark, who created a thriving community garden in "a scorched-earth scene of toppled buildings" where "doll parts and curtain rods stuck up from the dirt, picture frames and old bills lay scattered half-buried in ash." And we meet Veronica Serrato, a corporate lawyer who left an $80,000-a-year job to help "poor Latina women and children from the community who, without pro bono legal services, would lead lives of utter misery."

Hirsch's favorite haunt is Doyle's Pub, which boasts "one of the longest mahogany bars this side of Galway...and endless platters of fish and chips and onion rings." But food, the author tells us, is not, ultimately, what Doyle's is really about. "It's about sociability, neighborliness, the stretches and strokes of public recreation. Here," she notes, "...we are at home away from home: one family, one tribe, one community."

Standing at a Crossroads

For all her talk of community and belonging, however, I was never able to shake the feeling that Hirsch is more observer than participant, the people she describes as much subjects as friends. She herself says, commenting on this complex process, "To observe, as I've noticed many times ...when I might suppose that I'd stand out most awkwardly, is to be oddly nullified....Either there is something in the observing stance that says, Discount me from the logic of whatever is happening; I am not a player. Or we are all invisible to one another most of the time and just don't take notice of this fact, we are so preoccupied by our own concerns."

Ironically, one of Hirsch's concerns may take her away from the community she celebrates in her book. The schools in J.P. are abysmal, and one by one she watches her friends move to neighboring suburbs — "claustrophobic towns, with their idyllic boutiques and border strip malls and little else in between except, of course, the schools." The author's own son is nearing school age. "Soon," she writes, "I too will stand at this crossroads." One wonders which road she'll choose.

Reviewer Emily d'Aulaire writes from her home in Connecticut.