JJ Tiziou, West Philly resident and block captain is an expert community connector. He harnesses his creativity and compassion to bring people together. Besides his photography and massage therapy work, he hosts community dinners, plans block parties, and helps others find resources and become more familiar with their city.
Hyper-local Community Organizer
JJ understands the importance of a close-knit community and how to cultivate them.
During the pandemic, he found creative ways for his neighbors to safely gather. He resumed his monthly (indoor) dinners to the outdoors and cleverly called it “Soup on the sStoop”. He also hosted “tiny friendly fires”, which simply took moving his firepit from the back to the front yard. In the winter days of the pandemic, five people could gather around in masks at least six feet apart. JJ’s home has become a de facto community center for neighbors and travelers. His dad’s love of hosting and feeding people inspires him.
JJ stresses the importance of gathering as neighbors without an agenda. Because that bonding is crucial when a contentious issue or crisis surfaces. When people already know one another, they feel more comfortable asking for help. JJ’s pro-tip for bringing neighbors together is to throw block parties.
“The city lets us close off the street five times a year and I make sure that we take advantage of that.”
Building Community Infrastructure
JJ also enhances the physical environment within his community. He worked with a block tree committee to replace fallen trees and boost the aging canopy. They planted nine trees during the last election. JJ said it felt like a positive gesture to the future as votes were being counted and the country felt uncertain about what was next.
JJ and his housemate built a special little free library that’s double wide and decked out with solar LED lights. He says it has a devoted following and during the pandemic they upgraded it to include a community bulletin board and a mini-food pantry.
“It’s sort of like a little tiny hub on the block that’s well-loved.”
The structure houses copies of a neighborhood resource map JJ put together after learning about asset mapping in CPI. His map includes hidden green spaces, grocery resources, community hubs and more. The little library also memorializes his 81-year-old neighbor Mr. Cyrus, who recently passed away. Mr. Cyrus lived on the block for 50 years but was forced to move after the owner of the affordable housing complex decided to sell the building. The tenants were given six weeks to vacate with no accommodation. JJ was organized and got a few delays and some cash support, but ultimately, the neighbors affected had to leave their homes. JJ admitted that there are much more powerful forces at play.
In 2016, JJ started walking the perimeter of Philadelphia for a unique citywide artist residency. This is no easy jaunt; it takes six days of walking sun–up to sun–down to cover the city’s boundary. JJ completed his ninth walk in February 2021 and continues to push the idea and participation each year. For him, it’s another way to build community. He sees strangers begin this walk together and by the end they are friends who want to continue walking together.
“It’s a simple container that creates a really powerful civic kind of tool so I’m excited to keep building it.”
It’s a special view of Philadelphia, he says, including usually invisible things like farms, graveyards, scrap yards, shipyards, superfund sites, and more. The walks have deepened his appreciation for the complex public infrastructure and interconnected networks of transportation, waterways, commerce, development, and decay.
JJ knows not everybody may want to or be able to walk 100 miles. He has taken different approaches to improve accessibility; breaking it up in 10-mile segments, giving people different points to access the walk and allowing people to come for a part of a day, one day, or the whole thing.
“It’s kind of like the Appalachian trail, some people are thru-hikers and some people are segment hikers, there’s no wrong way to do it.”
Many questions come up during a walk. People want to know more about the different themes like wildlife, prisons, the rivers, etc. JJ has expanded the project to include panel discussions where he can bring in experts to generate ongoing discussion and engagement between the walks. He recently was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to create a perimeter walking retreat for them and hopes to do more of this work in the future.
With infinite resources, JJ would convert aging churches to community centers– think art centers, libraries, indoor public pools and health and wellness spaces. He noted, “everywhere I’m seeing churches get knocked down or carved up into condos…It’s easy for developers to get to them before community groups can realize what’s happening” … “These sacred spaces can’t be replaced and have great potential to be places for the community to come together for noncommercial purposes.”
The Calvary Center in West Philadelphia is an example of a vibrant space providing nourishment to all aspects of their community including housing multiple religious congregations.
When asked what he enjoyed most about CPI, it was the connections he appreciated the most:
“It’s been great to connect to other people who are doing this kind of work or related types of work in their own neighborhoods and to understand the different issues in different neighborhoods.”