In many ways, Ryan Kuck and his wife, Suzanna Urminska, perfectly represent Philadelphia's ever-evolving urban culture. They're young. They're committed to the city. And they know how to grow vegetables.
"I learned how to farm here in Philly," said Kuck. "I grew up in east Tennessee, but I didn't know nothing about food or how food grew, but I learned it here in Philly, and now I got a tattoo of okra on my arm and that's my Philly tattoo."
He's a full-time farmer; she's a children's librarian. Like many young, urban couples they care about developing community, practicing sustainability and turning the "do it yourself" mantra into way of life.
Not only do Kuck and Urminska have these ideals, they practice them, relentlessly.
"A nice balance to being a librarian is that I can come home from work and then be outside for five more hours," said Urminska, "doing, you know, manual labor."
For them, the pattern has been steady. They learn. They make a plan. They act.
They saw how many neighborhoods in Philadelphia were cut off from fresh food, so they decided to transform a house in a blighted section of West Philadelphia into a home/community garden.
Kuck says when they bought the property it was a "completely broken down shell of a house — no roof, mushrooms the size of heads in the basement, crazy, crazy stuff that I can't even imagine now."
They learned how much food is wasted by supermarkets, so they joined a crusade of late-night Dumpster-divers, learning the thrill of scoring safe, uncontaminated food that otherwise would have been completely wasted.
"You'd have people from all walks of life, all different income brackets and age groups and ethnicities and everything you can imagine would converge on this Trader Joe's Dumpster at like 9 p.m.," said Kuck, "and it would be a whole swap meet. People would trade things and everyone had things that were their favorite."
Not that their tastes aren't refined.
"It was nice to be able to Dumpster-dive organic food," said Kuck. "It was maybe past its prime, but at least you weren't ingesting more chemicals, you know?"
They're the sort of couple who use bicycles as their only mode of transportation, who know what it's like to eat fresh eggs from their backyard chickens, who've skipped heating bills by chopping their own firewood.
"When people would see us chopping firewood for our wood stoves, they'd be like, 'That's so much work, why would you do that?'" said Kuck.
"And I'm like well, 'as long as you enjoy it, then it's fine,' cause you can go work a job you don't enjoy to make enough money to pay the gas bill, or you can not work as much at a job, chop your own firewood, and save that money on the gas bill."
Times, they are a-changin'
Six years after moving into their Belmont neighborhood, they've put real roots down, and worked with neighbors who've been there for generations to create a community where people actually know each other, help each other, and work together to enrich each other's lives.
Now though, as they forge into their thirties, they're facing the quintessential question of adulthood: In a world of cold, hard realities, how do we manage to hold on to our ideals?
It's a question that became specifically tricky some months back, when they found out that Urminska was pregnant, with twins.
When we first talked in November, she was 7 and 1/2 months pregnant, carrying an extra 30 pounds.
"What our boys are doing is sharing a placenta, which may seem very generous of them," she said laughing, "but..."
It actually makes twin pregnancy much more precarious. And right away the couple's ideals had to change. This wouldn't be the all-natural home birth they had conceptualized. This would be a very carefully managed, hospitalized affair.
But whatever twists and turns the pregnancy and parenthood brought, Kuck was confident that they'd always strike a balance between their ideals and their joy. Joy, he said, would always come first.
The question became, though, would that joy ever take them away from their greatest ideal, the community that they helped cultivate?
It was a question that the couple had clearly been deliberating.
"I hope in five years, when our kids are school age, we're not, like, giving up on the city," said Kuck. "I think we've worked really hard to create something here that we feel like we can continue for the rest of our lives, but you never know, you never know how things are going to change."
Change came quickly. The very next day after our interview, the couple went to a prearranged hospital checkup. There, the doctor noticed an irregularity with Urminska's blood pressure and asked them to hang around a while. Eventually, she told them, "This baby's probably gonna come within the next 72 hours no matter what we do, so you should decide whether you want to have it now or not."
Before they knew it, Urminska was prepped for a C-section and 30 minutes later they were parents to 6-week-premature twin boys.
"And then we had this like 'oh, snap!' moment," said Kuck, laughing. "Now the fun really begins."
Certainly not the ideal situation, but the reality they faced.
Eight weeks after the birth, I went back this month to check in with the new family.
After spending the first two weeks of their lives in the neonatal-intensive-care unit at Pennsylvania Hospital, the babies — Julian and Oliver — were still tiny, but healthy, and free from complications.
Kuck and Urminska looked sleep deprived, each with a baby slung around their necks.
When I asked Kuck which baby he was holding, the toll of their sleepless nights was evident.
"I'm ... I don't even know," he said, laughing. "I'm holding Julian, I think."
Urminska laughed with him, nodding in confirmation.
They always meant to paint their toenails different colors to tell them apart but never did.
Certain things that the new parents figured would be easy have proved to be difficult.
Urminska had wanted the natural connection of breastfeeding, but with the babies being so small, it's been impossible. Instead, she pumps breast milk into bottles in regular three-hour intervals, day and night.
Kuck had planned on doing diaper-changing in an eco-friendly way, but that too hasn't happened.
"We're still using disposable diapers, which is crazy," said Kuck. "And we have these reusable ones that I think we're gonna phase in at some point, but right now with them being so small and being so much of a time commitment, it seems like our self care is more important, maybe, than a little bit more trash in a landfill. That does make me sad sometimes."
The heart of the matter
No matter the concessions, they're keeping things in perspective.
"You have to do a lot of soul-searching to realize, 'Look, this isn't about you. This isn't about what, like, your image of what parenthood is going to be like,'" said Kuck. "It's tackling these problems one at a time."
The support of their community, they say, has made each problem much easier to deal with. Since the birth there's been an almost constant flow of friends, family and neighbors who've showered the new family with food, well wishes and blessings.
As Kuck says, this outpouring of support just goes to show how rewarding it can be to build real community relationships.
"Our life with twins is only possible because of the collaboration and participation of many people — family, friends, neighbors — and it is, in fact, that unique quality of urbanism that allows us to stay and thrive here."
It's this interconnectivity that drives them to want to keep improving the neighborhood.
In December, just weeks after the boys' birth, the couple partnered with a friend to buy the abandoned house next door. Now they're working to convert it into nonprofit low-income housing.
But between this project and the newborns, you can bet one thing: They won't be doing any Dumpster diving for a while. They'll be way too tired.
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