Where I Am: Good in the Hood

I live in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, and no, I don’t mean that metaphorically.

Mr. Fred Rogers and I shared the same zip code from the summer of 1999 until his death in 2003. Sadly, we never met, but his legacy follows me nonetheless.

I went to grad school at the seminary where he became a pastor, and my daughters attended the preschool where he did his student teaching.  When I dropped them off in the morning, I often paused at a black and white photo of Fred Rogers (not yet “Mr.”) introducing King Friday to a group of 1960’s-era preschoolers.  There are more photographs in the cafeteria of the Children’s Museum, and a larger than life statue downtown. There even used to be a slightly disturbing Mr. Rogers dinosaur (complete with red sweater and puppets) planted in the shrubbery outside his former office.


Really, the man is everywhere.

Now.  I hear some of you snickering, and you’re not laughing at the dinosaur. You’re remembering “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood“, the SNL parody in which Eddie Murphy portrays a slightly less… ah hmm… virtuous version of the man in the sweater, teaching children words like “Scumbucket” and receiving visits from “Mr. Speedy” the drug dealer. It’s cynical, offensive and hilarious; and its gritty realism seems the very antithesis of Mr. Rogers’ measured kindness.

Or so it would appear.

The thing is that Fred Rogers wasn’t as saccharine and naive as his caricature, and his legacy in Pittsburgh can’t be reduced to make believe.  Journalist Tim Madigan wrote:

In my opinion, ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ revealed only a fraction of his human greatness.  Knowing him from television alone, it is tempting to see him as a man who might actually live in his Neighborhood of Make Believe… but he was also a man fully of this world, deeply aware of and engaged in its difficulties, speaking often of death, disease, divorce, addiction, and cruelty and the agonies those things wrought on people he loved.

Mr. Rogers lived in Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood, and I do too.

Where am I? I am in a place where drug deals go down, where bullets ‘solve’ arguments, and where sirens wail at all hours of night and day. I live in a place with trash in the streets and hulking abandoned steel mills along the river. I live in a place where children can be cruel, teenagers intimidate, and racial and economic segregation are real.

And.  Also.

I live in a place where Mr. Rogers once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.”

I live in a place where people are struggling to love.

I see it at my kindergartner’s school where the children of refugees learn alongside the children of visiting university scholars. In the cafeteria I count nationalities: Somalian, Mexican, Iranian, Chinese, Malaysian, Haitian, and Congolese. “Miss Jen, can you please get me a spoon?!?” I lose count of countries, and then I see the principal opening somebody’s milk carton and think, “Mr. Rogers would be proud.”

I see it in the work of organizations in my neighborhood. Open Hand ministries, run by a guy who lives in the next block, renovates homes with volunteers and builds long-term relationships with low-income homeowners. Garfield Community Farm, just up the hill, is transforming abandoned city lots (we have a lot of these) into a neighborhood food source. They sell organic produce cheaply at a farm stand, supplement my church’s food bank, and teach school groups about sustainable farming.

The more I look, the more I see. This is a small city after all.  In Pittsburgh, you run into friends at the grocery store, shovel your neighbors’ sidewalk, and bang pots and pans on the porch when the Steelers win a playoff game. We are a city of neighborhoods. And neighbors.

Last week, in my neighborhood, I walked to work.  Just across the street from my house, I stopped to tease the man who is always fixing somebody’s car.

“D.J., haven’t you fixed all the cars in Pittsburgh already?”

“You’d think so, Jenny, you’d think so.”

“Well, at least it’s a beautiful day.”

And it is.

14 Thoughts.

  1. Love this phrase…. “I live in a place where Mr. Rogers once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.”

    Great reminder… great post! Thanks so much for your openness and insight!

    • It was really difficult to pick from among the Mr. Rogers quotes! He said a lot of profound things in the most disarming ways.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jess. I really value your friendship–in person and in the blogosphere (if such a place exists!).

  2. When I taught at Middlebury I worked with the man who had been Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a young black man in show business, he’d encountered horrible racism. He said that Fred Rogers restored his faith in people again by treating every one with the same deep, gentle respect. Thanks, Jen, for this clear-eyed, loving depiction of your neighborhood.

    • I love hearing these stories, Stacy. A friend told me that when he was in kindergarten, Mr. Rogers was his Sunday School teacher. he mentioned this in kindergarten and got in horrible trouble. He had to go to the principal’s office and write “I will not lie about Mr. Rogers” over and over again. On Sunday he told Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Rogers asked if he had show and tell at his school. Guess who showed up unannounced for show and tell the following Tuesday?

  3. I love this, Jen—especially the way you illuminate the complexities of the world we live in. Mr. Rogers was not as simple as he might seem, and neither is your neighborhood, which many people would harshly label after a single glance.

  4. Oh, how I loved Fred Rogers! It is good to remember his unassuming, gentle ways during the harsh times in which we live. Thank you for your writing. It makes me smile and remember that it is a beautiful day, indeed.

    • The real Mr. Rogers is incredibly comforting to me. Goodness needs to have some traction, or teeth, without becoming harsh and judgmental. Mr. Rogers exemplified this way of being in the world. (I would add that you do as well, Lisa)

  5. Thanks for letting me one of the first to view your post. Love Mr. Rogers! And the distinct neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Although I don’t live there, I have seen the struggle, but also the examples of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”, and the difference it can make. As a person who doesn’t live a city, and doesn’t often even see a neighbor, I enjoy seeing people out and about in city areas. I have learned a lot from you because you live “in the hood”.

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