A few days before Christmas, I walked across the street, knocked on a neighbor’s door and handed her a bag of homemade holiday treats—somewhat sad-looking, but hopefully delicious, chocolate-covered pretzels.
We stood outside six-feet apart, in our masks, traded holiday well-wishes, and then she went back inside and I went home. It was a brief interaction, barely anything, really.
But just as she made to turn around, my neighbor said something that struck a chord with me: “Thank you so much for this. It really makes me feel like I’m part of a neighborhood.”
We are all part of some neighborhood. And we can all find a way to make it better—even, maybe especially, during a pandemic.
Here, simple ways each week that you can make a better city in 2021:
1. Help someone read. Become a (virtual for now) Philly Reading Coach. Start or stock a neighborhood Little Free Library. Or donate books or money to Treehouse Books.
2. Put—or keep up—the holiday lights around your house. Who decided we can only be festive during the holidays? Twinkling string lights are nice all year round.
3. Buy something from a Black-owned business in Philly. Here’s a list of 300+ shops and services to choose from.
4. Celebrate public officials who are doing the right thing—rather than just focusing on those who do bad. Start by voting for our inaugural Integrity Icon.
5. Stock, or set up, a free food fridge in your neighborhood. Organized by various groups in town, the refrigerators offer free meals, produce and other items for anyone who stops by. Find some here.
6. Practice your piano—or trumpet, or violin, or singing—by an open window. Serenade your neighbors, and maybe even start a socially-distant sing-along, like what happened in Italy in March, when radio stations blasted the national anthem and encouraged residents to sing together.
7. Get a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as you are able.
8. Plant a tree—on your sidewalk, in your yard, in an empty lot. Go to TreePhilly for more info on how to do it—for free.
9. Read A Prayer For the City, Buzz Bissinger’s seminal book about former Mayor Ed Rendell’s first term.
10. Clean up your street. Just a bag, a grabber and a few minutes of your time can make all the difference.
11. Put your trash out properly so it doesn’t make a mess.
12. Pay it forward. In Napoli, Italy, there’s a longstanding tradition of café sospeso—paying for two coffees, but drinking just one, so someone else can get a cup for free. The idea in some form has made its way around the world, as a way to both help cafes stay afloat, and do something kind for each other.
13. Become a block captain. Or, offer to help your block captain with a project.
14. Plant flowers—any and everywhere. Potholes. Empty lots. The dirt patch by the corner bus stop. (Though you might want to ask first if it’s private property.)
15. Walk more. It’s better for your health, the environment and your neighborhood.
16. Talk to someone in your neighborhood you’ve rarely or never met. Better yet: Bring (Covid-safe) treats.
17. See a show. Philly’s live performance scene includes the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, the experimental Pig Iron Theater Company, the innovative Wilma Theater—and everything between and beyond. Many have even pivoted to virtual.
18. Read some local poetry, starting with Philly’s current and former poet laureates: Sonia Sanchez; Frank Sherlock; Yolanda Wisher; Raquel Salas Rivera; Trapeta Mayson.
19. Attend a civic meeting every month—even just one to start with. Whether a school board meeting, City Council, your neighborhood association—they’re all online right now, at all different times of day. Then see if it can become a habit.
20. Write a letter. First, find the email of a local elected official or public organization, like SEPTA. Then, let them know what you think about how they’re doing. Set yourself a timer for 10 minutes to keep it quick. And then fire it off and wait for a response.
21. Show your support for something. Here’s something novel: Raise your voice to talk about something you think works, rather than just to complain about something that doesn’t. Positive feedback is important, too.
22. Sit outside for a few minutes a day. Not just because it’s good for you; it also helps you see what’s happening on your street, makes it safer—and gives you an extra chance to wave to your neighbors.
23. Support local authors. Philly has a pretty robust literary scene—let’s keep it going by helping the writers in our midst. Connect with Blue Stoop literary community. Shop at your neighborhood’s independent bookstore. Support Mighty Writers, and help young people express themselves through words.
24. Shovel (or sweep) a few extra feet. You’re already out there; go ahead and take care of your neighbor’s sidewalk too.
25. Take a Mural Arts tour—a celebration of local art, history and neighborhood culture, all in one.
26. Vote in the May primary.
27. Say “thank you” to your postal worker, delivery people, trash collectors, bus drivers, grocery workers. Learn their names, let them know you appreciate that they are out there every day, no matter what.
28. Drive slower. There was an increase in traffic deaths last year, even as more people were home. Slowing down just a little can keep everyone safer.
29. Support local news outlets, by reading or listening to. Then, donate to keep them going, if you can. (You can support The Citizen here.) Democracy depends on a vital media.
30. Grow food, for yourself and others. (Yes, even in the city.)
31. Take and post a picture of the Philly you love to social media. (Be sure to tag us!) Or, do what this couple on Passyunk Avenue did in their front windows shortly after moving in: Hang photos of neighbors in their windows, with brief notes of appreciation.
32. Talk to a young person about voting. Voting is a habit that is best started young. Introduce them to #VoteThatJawn.
33. Make a Philly-specific playlist and share on Spotify.
34. Connect with Philadelphians of different faiths. Both POWER and Interfaith Philadelphia bring together people of different backgrounds to engage and advocate for change in the city, through outreach, protests or other actions.
35. Help feed the hungry.
36. Support local artists. As fitting for a city like Philly, there is no shortage of local painters, sculptors, photographers and other creators here whose works would improve any space. Get a start by perusing the artists on InLiquid’s online platform, StreetsDept blog, or Etsy.
37. Tell someone outside Philly something glorious about your city that doesn’t involve pretzels, cheesesteaks, bells or Gritty.
38. Search for Gritty memes and celebrate the best, weirdest, most iconic mascot in professional sports.
39. Throw a spontaneous dance party.
40. Vote in the November general election.
41. Take a deep dive into one of Philly’s deep-seated problems—racism, poverty, violence, inequity. First, learn what you can about the past and present of the issue; then, learn about who’s doing the work to fix the problem; then, if you can, join in the fight.
42. Read Walking Broad: Looking For the Heart of Brotherly Love, Philly native and author Bruce Bruschel’s 2011 chronicle of his 13-mile walk through Philly’s Broad Street-adjacent neighborhoods.
43. Explore the Wissahickon, a gem in our backyard that can help you get lost, appreciate a healthy environment, and find a new way to love Philly.
44. Take a Narcan training course—and then carry the lifesaving, anti-opiate overdose drug with you.
45. Call your local school and ask how you can help.
46. Learn the names of all your elected officials—even the lowest-ranking ones, like committee people.
47. Take your committee person out for coffee. Learn more about how our elections work, and what you can do to make them better.
48. Start a neighborhood oral history project, like this one in Southwest Philly’s Eastwick, recording stories from old-timers and newcomers to the area.
49. Read the City Charter. Otherwise known as Philly’s “Home Rule Charter”, which was enacted in 1952.
50. Call 311 to report that pothole, faulty light, graffiti or other neighborhood eyesore everyone is ignoring.
51. Shop sustainably. Take a few minutes to learn what that means, then seek out local businesses that are environmentally-friendly—a way to do good twice over.
52. Do no harm. Maybe you’ll take none of these other suggestions. Still, take this one: Be kind. It is scientifically proven to better your world, and we can use more of it in ours.Header photo: Justine Stephens playing the flute at her sister's home in Point Breeze. Photo by Jared Gruenwald/ Left Eyed Studios