Saturday, May 17, 2008

Urban Sprawl

I've been thinking a lot about community this week. In the six years since we settled at our present address, our neighborhood, our street, has seen many changes. Over half are not original residents anymore. Easter egg hunts and block parties have blurred into indifferent co-habitations where the only cohesiveness is the old lady down the street we affectionately refer to as "the poop bag lady" because she's the only dog owner in a ten mile radius who doesn't believe it's her dog's God-given right to crap on our lawn. The rest are like snapshots. A back tattoo here. A swelling pregnancy there. Faces bleed into each other--brothers, another lover, a new cleaning lady.

During one of those late nights when I could no longer rub two brain cells together, I watched the PBS documentary entitled "Subdivided." It explored the reasons Americans are more divided than ever and how poor community planning and this inherent desire many feel to chase the sprawling "American Dream" has left us feeling isolated and disconnected. While people latch onto cell phones at the expense of talking to a neighbor at the mailbox and we move further away from our place of employment to escape the city, increasing our energy consumption, much of the time we would have sat on our porches or walked the dog and stopped to say hello to an old friend is spent in a daily commute.

One of our inaugural street residents died this week. Although I'm guilty of the same distractions and preoccupation with self and family, and I only spoke with her on a few occasions over the past six years, this disconnected undertone stayed with me. For all that I should have walked over and shared good news or just a simple hello, I wanted to make up for in the present. At the funeral, I signed the guest book. Would the family even know my last name? I gave her husband a hug. Would it ring empty because he remembered all the times I fetched the morning paper and was in too much of a hurry to wave?

The preacher listed the litany of roles she'd taken on in this lifetime. One was a kind neighbor. Did I know this about her? Is this something that's said about us when we've gone or is there truth in it? Could the same be said for me if I were next to go?

In truth, I thought I'd be the only representative at the service. All the veteran residents held day jobs far away in the city. I wanted to make sure someone stood in for the memory of our first July Fourth we all made those tentative bonds. As it turned out, four other neighbors came. Maybe they longed for connectedness, too.

The documentary offers hope. Community planners are embracing traditional town-square designs, where anyone wanting a gallon of milk can walk four blocks to a mom and pop store and pass half a dozen neighbors with ample front porch space to drop by and stay awhile. Downtown revitalization projects cater to those who long to be a part of something more than just a lonely one-driver commute. More than a wave or a steaming poop bag. A real sense of belonging and responsibility to those who share our little half-acre of earth.

Would Fred Rogers be proud of you this week? I know, Mr. McFeeley didn't have a barbed-wire tat, but start with a wave, just one. Maybe next week you can work up to a plate of cookies.


Jen FitzGerald said...

Good thoughts, L.A.

Thanks for the reminder ~


Todd Wheeler said...

Great post. I shall do my best. Though, I'm drawing the line at the Mr. Rogers cardigan.

Maureen McGowan said...

You know... One of the things I like best about living where I do (in the heart of a big city) is that I walk everywhere and run into many of the same people every day. That said... I couldn't tell you the names of half the people on my street or the names of the people I nod to and occasionally make a few sentences of conversation with in my local coffee shop where I write. I'm too busy chatting with cyber people on blogs to talk to the real people in front of me...

Hmmm... I'm going to think on this some more. I feel a blog post of my own coming on the topic.

Great post, L.A.!
(from one of your cyber friends)

L.A. Mitchell said...

Jen-thanks for popping over :)

Todd-thankfully I wasn't drinking when I read your comment. No one's mentioned the land of make believe. I think I've taken up permanent residence there.

Maureen-wonder what would happen if you formally introduced yourself. What a bright spot to those conversation friends to hear their own names. Of course, if you're like me, they'll vaporize the moment you walk away. Ack!

Sherry Davis said...

Nice post, LA. I'm so thankful every day that I live in a great OLD neighborhood where my elderly neighbors force me to stand in the street every once in a while and discuss the gossip of the day, who moved to an assisted living facility or whose tree needs to be trimmed. Lately, it's about installing speed humps :)

We look out for them and they look out for us. They also don't hesitate to give us advice (b/c we're the young kids on this block!).

We occasionally have to force someone off a ladder when they take it in their heads to fix their roof (grin). We've changed lightbulbs in lamp posts (literally, my hubby was waved down by a woman! She sent a nice thank you note).

A couple of times, a wheelchair has escaped its owner and my hubby was called to help set things to rights. Once a month, they do the neighborhood association meeting with cakes and ice cream and it's come and go. I usually don't go. It's a time hole in a time in my life when I have so little.

I know what you mean, though, about a sense of community.

Kim Lenox said...

Great post, L.A. I know I and my husband really miss the "community" we had to move away from. I loved my "can I borrow a half a cup of sugar?" cul-de-sac. :(

Katie Reus said...

Wonderful post LA. All the places I've visited in Europe seem to have more of a community mentality so hopefully this country will find a solution to urban sprawl and at the same time, the obesity problem. If neighborhoods all have their own grocery stores, etc. w/in walking distance, maybe it will motivate people to stop hurting the environment and start excercising.

At the same time, with housing in the city being ridiculously priced it's easy to see why people want to latch onto part of that American dream and actually own their own home.

Anyway, I really enjoyed your post, very thought provoking :)