Sherman Park Community and the Ethics of Caring
Care is a concept that may seem very concrete in our minds. However, we rarely consider what the term really means, or how care is tangibly practiced in our day to day lives. Our physical environment plays a large role in the way we enact and practice acts of caring. British social anthropologist, Paul Connerton notes that “…everyday forms of engagement with place may be ‘products of habits and bodily practices that produce a combination of cognitive and habit-memory.’” This suggests that our everyday acts of kindness and goodwill are also related to the physical and social contexts within which such activities take place. These mundane habits of caring are often born out of subconscious actions and habitual behavior that we develop naturally over time. This also means that cultural practices of caring can be nurtured and reinforced by the way we act and behave in the built environment.
During our conversations with Sherman Park residents we identified five ways by which place-based acts of caring are reproduced and reaffirmed in everyday life. These include working (when residents take care of streets, yards, and gardens); helping (when neighbors lend a helping hand to one another or join a block watch group); discerning (learning and upholding shared forms of aesthetics and taste); and training (passing on to the new generations those care practices that have been instilled in one’s lives). These acts of caring may also be communicated in the form of art, speech, behavior, and written word.
For many in Sherman Park, gardening is a way to show concern for their environment. Ms. Tremerell Robinson sees gardening as a “chain reaction” because it encourages an attitude of caring. She notes that flower beds that she planted in front of her house encouraged others on her street to plant and nurture their own flower gardens. This “chain reaction” has worked on her block: the flower beds on 40th Street are symbols of the community’s collective effort to nurture their environment.
Mr. Arthur Brown believes that lending a helping hand to neighbors is an important aspect of community life. Mr. Brown demonstrates this form of caring when he works on neighbors’ cars in his garage. Often, he swings by their homes to help with handyman tasks. Neighbors purchase the parts that need replacement, but Brown doesn’t charge a cent for his labor. Many residents fear that this culture of lending a helping hand may disappear if not nourished and encouraged. Ms. Mary Kaems mentions that elderly residents living on her street often need help and assistance. They may be unable to care for their homes, mow their lawns, or shovel snow. Increasingly many find that their families aren’t helping them with these tasks. The Kaems do their best to help their elderly neighbors in whatever capacity they can, but they also wonder if they will have anyone to help upkeep their own home when they become infirm.
There is much discussion around safety in this neighborhood. This is another form of “looking out for each other” that lends itself in acts such as neighborhood watches, street patrolling, and porch sitting. Grandparents sit out on their front porch while children and grandchildren play on the sidewalk. Many residents express their fears that they feel unsafe in their neighborhood. Some feel that they are unable to go out on their porches anymore. Ms. Robinson notes that there has been a shift in a general sense of safety. She explains that while her daughter could play out on the porch and sidewalk with her friends in the past, her grandchildren don't have that same sense of freedom and mobility. Mr. Brown mentions that people, especially the elderly are fearful taking out the trash at night. Both Robinson and Brown are engaged in re-inculcating that sense of wardenship among youngsters.
What do people want their environment to look like? This aesthetic goal repeatedly appears in our interviews. Mr. Brown reflects that foreclosed and abandoned homes in Sherman Park make him sad because these derelict spaces reflect on the character of the entire neighborhood. He is neither referring to the economics of housing nor describing ways to reuse these buildings. He is talking of an aesthetics of neglect. Minor acts such as planting flowers or fixing up the paint on the outside of a home transforms what one sees. Fred Curzan of the Sherman Park Community Association has crafted a term to describe these abandoned homes. He calls them “tired houses,” and he seeks guardians who will bring comfort to these left-over buildings.
Discussions around renters, landlords, and homeowners emerge as an important issue. Many homeowners feel that there is a disconnect between renters and owners. Renters may not have much incentive to put enough effort to maintain their homes or help others on their streets. Yet, we met renters such as Ms. Shante Hullum who, despite being a tenant, takes good care of her home and is actively engaged with her neighbors. Ms. Robinson complains about absentee landlords who aren’t held to a high degree of accountability. Mr. Brown agrees. He isn’t keen on encouraging a lot of the rental properties because the landlords may never bother to come trim trees or cut the grass.
Caring is a form of knowledge that is passed on through generations in the form of tales, morals, and codes of behavior. Elders recount family histories and memories to young adults, reminding them of their moral responsibilities towards others. The elders often express concern that the youngsters lack habits of caring. Mr. Mike Staples’ great-grandfather and his own father worked extremely hard for their families. He remembers that their perseverance is exactly what motivates him to go out into the community and urge youngsters to be responsible and caring citizens. Staples is part of a men’s network in which older African American men serve as mentors for young adults in the neighborhood. They work with teenagers in shop classes at a local high school and during weekly breakfasts, they inculcate a sense of discipline, responsibility, and neighborliness to the youngsters.
Nel Noddings reminds us that “…if we commit ourselves to receptivity, natural caring occurs more frequently, and conflicts may thereby be reduced." Natural caring is an important aspect to shaping a culture of caring because it becomes habitual and may not create such a significantly present generational gap that many residents are currently experiencing and observing.
 Paul Connerton quoted in Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman. Making Place: Space and Embodiment in the City. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), p.4.
 Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).