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.
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.