Monday, June 23, 2008

Community and the city

An op-ed column in the NY Times today is a great example of what happens to a sense of community in suburbia. The author, who lives in "a middle-class suburb of Rochester", describes his community:
Did I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate? Few of my neighbors, I later learned, knew others on the street more than casually; many didn’t know even the names of those a few doors down.

According to social scientists, from 1974 to 1998, the frequency with which Americans spent a social evening with neighbors fell by about one-third. Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” a groundbreaking study of the disintegration of the American social fabric, suggests that the decline actually began 20 years earlier, so that neighborhood ties today are less than half as strong as they were in the 1950s.

Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?
I am proud to have grown up in the city in a 1920's streetcar suburb that my folks moved into when it was considerably less popular (the city tried to bulldoze most of it in the 70's for a highway). My experience with community is vastly different from what this author describes, and I like to think that part of it was due to the fact that I lived in an actual neighborhood and not in a cul-de-sac.

Because of the way my neighborhood was developed, I was able to walk to school with the other kids on the block and bike to the local grocery store. Our family could easily walk to any number of restaurants in the neighborhood, and we often ran into our neighbors returning from their own dinner out. Now that the kids have grown up, the parents still get together regularly for book clubs and knitting. As they walk around the corner to dinner, my folks still stops to chat with the neighbor working on her garden in the evening.

In fact, I have noticed that the neighborhood continues as a community. For the last 25 years, there has been someone from my street who has gone to the local public school. The amazing thing (to me at least) is that my folks know a young girl on the street who is currently in 5th grade. She picks up the paper when they are out of town. They know her parents simply from "around the neighborhood," nothing more complicated than that.

There is also an amazing diversity of residents on my folks' street alone, from young professionals, to elderly women, to empty-nesters, to young couples with children. Not everyone knows everyone else, of course, and it is not idyllic or anything. But there is a reason that very few families have moved away over the last 25 years, and it is in large part because they recognize that they live in a community.


  1. i saw a very interesting documentary on PBS tonight that echoed the sentiment of the column

    basically, the studies featured in the program showed how suburban families were far more detached from their neighbors than their inner-city counterparts, even in more dangerous intown neighborhoods.

    children were a major focus of the show, and they also spent a great deal amount of time talking about how suburban children are much more reliant on video games, TV, etc for entertainment. they dont play outside with other kids like urban children or explore nature like rural children.

    interesting stuff that makes you question the dubious convention of the suburbs being great for raising families...

    worth noting that the PBS show didnt mention schools, which are a major draw of suburbia.

  2. I can't relate to what you're talking about. Up until my move to East Atlanta I've never been able to walk anywhere within reason. However, it wasn't until the tornado in March drove everyone out of our houses that I actually met many of my neighbors. We wave to each other but I rarely get a chance to talk with them.

    Growing up in the suburbs of Savannah did not offer me the opportunity you had either. Sounds like it was priceless.


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