Personal Essay: How decluttering your home can enrich your neighborhood

Illustration by James Olstein

Illustration by James Olstein

Buy Nothing, Gain Everything

by Susan Corcoran

About two years ago, I realized that every time I walked into my apartment I felt anxious and unfulfilled. Things I didn’t use were everywhere. I was always questioning why I had so much when it caused me nothing but stress. I first tried to organize it, but it was all still there, just placed in brightly colored boxes.

When I decided to lead a more minimalist life, I needed to figure out what I would do with everything. I didn’t want to throw it in the trash. Selling it seemed like too much work and not worth the effort. I donate items to charity when I can, but that doesn’t work for something like my opened bottle of fancy perfume. 

Then I read about the Buy Nothing movement, a national project based in Bainbridge Island, Washington. “Give, Share, Build Community” is their tagline. The idea is to be able to meet and trade with people in your immediate area. I joined my local chapter, Buy Nothing: Bella Vista/Washington Square West/Queen Village. The group has over 600 members. It has grown so big that we recently had to split off into another group for the Graduate Hospital/Point Breeze neighborhoods. 

Joining this group led me not only to recycle things I no longer wanted, but also to become more aware of my community. I’ve met dozens of people I would have never otherwise encountered. 

I remember the first time I knocked on someone’s door to pick up a red messenger bag. I was feeling anxious and presented her with a bamboo plant to alleviate my feeling of being a freeloader. Why am I picking up a free item from a total stranger? What would I even say to her? Am I a total freak for doing this? The meeting turned out well. We made small talk and she was very pleasant. 

Then it was my turn to list things I wanted out of my house and my life once and for all. I’ve given away a brand new Android tablet, my old coffee table, even air filters I had bought that were the wrong size. I especially love the odds and ends that people actually need, such as the perfectly good glass plate from my broken microwave. I posted it because I know they are easy to break, but impossible to replace. Mine was a perfect fit for someone else’s microwave. I gave away a never opened flower-shaped candy mold that was used at a 4-year-old’s tea-party-themed birthday celebration. I contributed a bright purple T-shirt to a family’s Halloween costume that the creative mom (who just happens to be our group’s founder) pieced together from neighbors’ contributions. She posted pictures online the day after, and they looked fantastic. 

The effort of putting together a child’s Halloween costume or getting ready for a party becomes almost a community puzzle. We all come together to solve it.

We’ve gone from helping each other to helping the community at large, including a family who was displaced from their home, local public schools, an emergency shelter, and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society. Meeting the people who help facilitate our efforts has been very inspiring: the kind social advocate who collected items for a family's new home, a crafter who turned our old blankets into beds for the dogs and cats waiting at the rescue, the public school teachers who do everything they can to educate the youth of our city. We come together and help our city and people in need.

I’ve lived in Bella Vista for 13 years and knew only a few people on my block. Through the Buy Nothing group, I met a fellow former student from the small state college I attended in New York. It was great to find someone here who knew which dorm I lived in and all the bars we used to frequent. I’ve been invited into people’s homes and grown to know my neighbors. I feel that I’ve learned more about my community in the past two years than I had the decade before, and I can’t imagine how else I would have been able to meet them. 

I thought my journey into minimalism would be a solo one. As it turns out, getting rid of things can bring people together. Buy nothing, open your door and meet your neighbors.

Susan Corcoran is a respiratory therapist from New York, living happily and minimally in Philadelphia.