Thursday, February 28, 2013

Walking and Talking

"We have become a suburban nation - the only one in the world. Our migration from both the inner cities and the rural hinterland was as Lewis Mumford once put it, 'a collective effort to live a private life.' We aimed for comfort and well-stocked homes and freedom from uncomfortable interaction and the obligations of citizenship. We succeeded.

As if to seal our fate, zoning ordinances were copied and enforced all over the land, prohibiting the stuff of community from intrusion into residential areas. In the subdivisions of post-World War II America, there is nothing to walk to and no place to gather. The physical staging virtually ensures immunity from community.

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they meet others; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy."
I read this recently in an excellent book by Ray Oldenburg called “The Great Good Place,” which talks about the importance of “third places” - places other than work and home where people come together.  It’s one of those quotes that you read and then get up to do a lap around the living room, shouting “Yes!  That’s it!  That’s it!”

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up for the most part outside of the suburban wastelands described above.  Most of my childhood was spent in urban neighborhoods in a couple of different large-ish Midwestern cities.  My family finally moved out to the suburbs when I was 15, but somehow managed to find a weird and quirky little suburban pocket that functions more like a small town.  It is the original settlement in that area, with a beautiful Catholic church built in 1859, and a general atmosphere of neighborliness and community.  But I’ve had plenty of opportunity to experience the tree-less, sidewalk-less, isolating suburban subdivisions described above.

These environments are de-humanizing.  They cut us off from each other and from opportunities to foster creativity, collective action, and just simple “leisure” (as defined by Joseph Pieper).

My husband and I currently live in a vibrant downtown neighborhood in a large city.  There’s a lot to love about it.  Due to the many different and historically segregated immigrant populations that first settled in this part of the Midwest, our neighborhood has a Catholic church practically on every block.  Everything else is walkable too - we can definitely find almost everything we need without getting in the car.  And there are great places to eat, drink and spend time together - our favorites are the various ethnic restaurants owned and operated by large, first-generation immigrant families from India, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Of course, the “trendiness” factor means that many of the independent businesses that line the main drag are overpriced clothing and gift boutiques.  And there are lots and lots of bars, very few with an atmosphere very conducive to great conversation.  After spending some time in the UK, I am always searching for the eternally elusive “pub” and have yet to find it here.

But it’s a good place to be for now, and I’m hoping Oldenburg’s book inspires me with more ideas to help build the kind of neighborhood that leads to human flourishing.

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