Building Community (in Michigan)
Eddie Schneider Family
Sitting on the Front Porch
Imagine sitting on the front porch, on a nice day, watching children across the street playing ball. A neighbor is walking her dog. Another neighbor calls out to you as he passes by. Maybe you decide to invite one of these friendly people to sit and talk awhile. Yes, we can only imagine. Our lives are so hurried and self-indulgent that we don't have time to sit and talk to a neighbor. There used to be a sense of community but it seems to have vanished. At least it means something different than it used to. Of course there are many factors involved in the break-down of community but I propose that some seemingly minor architectural changes have contributed to the decline of community.
PorchesClick thumbnail to view full-size
A community is a place where people care about their neighbors--where they are willing to lend a hand. I remember the way our neighbors were there for my mother after my father's death. Even before his death, as he lay in the hospital bed, they were comforting and compassionate. As I described the neighbors were there lending a hand, they took turns baking a dish for my family, leaving one less worry for my mother. They would help out if she needed assistance and would listen if she needed to talk. One of my memories from childhood involved our neighbor George and my niece Gloria. She had climbed onto the roof of our garage and was too afraid to climb down. Mr. Reinhart climbed up and brought her safely to the ground. Not many people care enough anymore to stop what they are doing and help. Most would look up at the roof and say, "what is that crazy kid doing up there? She had better be careful or she is going to get hurt," or "I hope that kid doesn't fall off that roof."
Community, Communion, Communicate--Common
The well-being of each member of the community is the concern of every other member; noticing that the child is in danger is not enough. In his article entitled "The Web of Life," Scott Russell Sanders has this to say about community:
The words community, communion, communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning "together" or "next to," the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving. . . .
Exchanging Ideas and Views
Together we live next to our neighbors exchanging ideas and views. If our views and ideas are kind and thoughtful others tend to treat us kind and thoughtful. With each neighbor giving and caring we have a good healthy (common) community (together).
John Perry Barlow talks about "the bond of suffering" in his article "Is There a There in Cyberspace?", he goes on to say that "most community is a cultural stockade erected against a common enemy that can take many forms." Community is not only a "bond of joint suffering" but a bond of joint celebration and it seems that our cultural stockades have been erected against our community as well as our enemies. A neighborhood is not necessarily and community. A community requires some interaction between its members and this interaction is no longer provided by the places we live.
Porches and Dining Rooms
In the process of making houses cheaper and easier to build, builders and architects eliminated some important features such as porches, where people sat enjoying the day, waving to each passerby or sidewalks, where people walked by the houses--close enough to talk to the person or persons on the porches. There were fences where people could lean over and catch up on what was happening in the neighborhood. Dining rooms, where families discussed any new developments, or just talked about how the day went, were also a part of every home. All of these alterations have contributed to the erosion of community.
Levittown and WWII
Levittown, a housing project designed by architect William Levitt was developed in the mid-forties to house the soldiers returning from WWII and their families. Prefabrication and mass-production made it possible to build affordable homes quickly. The population in Levittown grew from 450 to 60,000 people in under two decades and this was only the beginning of suburbia. Rows of identical houses stood side by side: simple little box-shaped houses--not ones with ornate craftsmanship of the Victorian era; not one Tudor or Colonial to add variety. These houses were built nearly on top of each other and every one of them without a porch.
Architects of designed communities such as William Levitt believe that affordable homes, good roads, and convenient shopping are all that are needed to build community. Of course we want good roads and affordable housing as well as convenient shopping but not if it leaves our the social interaction which is promoted by the front porch. John Perry Barlow points out that "natural systems, such as human communities, are simply too complex to design by the engineering principles we insist on applying to them." A housing community has to involve more than building houses if it is going to be successful. Leaving a room out to make a house more affordable to build is costly to community.
The Nucleus of the Community
The porch was "the nucleus of the community" as Charles Shiver, owner of Shiver Restoration in Chelsea, Michigan, puts it. Without porches on the front of the house people tend to spend their spare time in their back yards. This makes it a little difficult to socialize spontaneously--not many of us are going to be walking by someone's back yard. It is much simpler to talk to someone who is sitting on their front porch. A neighbor sitting on his/her front porch appears to be more open to conversation than a neighbor tucked away in the back yard. Some may argue that we all have porches on the front of our houses. However, The Random House Dictionary defines a porch as: ". . .an open or glass- or screen-enclosed room attached to the outside of a house." A porch according to The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary is ". . .a covered approach to a doorway." The stoop on the front of my house is not enclosed or covered and could not be considered a room. I do occasionally sit on the hard cement slab at the entrance of my house but it is not a comfortable space for socializing. I'd like to be able to offer a nice chair to relax in but if I put furniture on my stoop it would be knocked off by the door.
Decks and Patios
The decks and patios that are being built on the backs of houses nowadays have room for comfortable furniture. There is plenty of space for company. The atmosphere could be perfect for socializing. Such a set up in the front of the house would be inviting for neighbors who might like to get acquainted. Yet most people sit in their back yards all alone. There are no sidewalks between the yards to walk down and as I said before, not many of us walk around behind someone's house. So having a neighborhood BBQ is a bit unlikely. Most BBQ's are for family or close friends in the average American back yard.
Many back yards have fences around them now but unlike the low picket fence they are towering privacy fences. It can be a little difficult getting the neighbors attention when they can not see you and you can not see them. I think of Tim Allen, in his sitcom Home Improvement, trying to talk to his neighbor Wilson through the fence between their yards. Even though they manage to talk, most of us would be uncomfortable conversing with a pair of eyes. Of course, privacy fences are built to keep the "prying eyes" of nosy neighbors out of the resident's "private life." Maybe the back yard is the place for privacy but there needs to be a place for neighborhood community as well.
Dining: to WatchTV or Communicate
Neighborhood community is not the only community affected by the architectural changes made in the mid-forties. Family community has been hampered as well. Many of the Cape Cod style houses built after the war were devoid of dining rooms. My house is of the Cape Cod style built in 1958. It has no dining room and the kitchen is too small in which to dine. So our living room furniture shares the living area with the dining room furniture. Other Cape Cod owners do the same. Some don't even bother with the dining room furniture. They don't visit with their families while they eat their meals, they watch television instead. Communication between members of the family community affects the neighborhood community as well.
The dining room was especially important for learning how to interact with others. Families used to gather together at least once a day at dinnertime. Manners were stressed and often members were asked to open up and share something with the others. So they learned to listen as well as share their thoughts and feelings. Once a person learned from their small (family) community they could move out to the porch and integrate with the larger (neighborhood) community. With televisions blaring at mealtimes it is difficult to communicate even with each other. In some houses every member of the family eats at a different time. People have to learn to fend for themselves. Not many want to act on behalf of the community anymore.
Community actions such as the "welcome wagon," at least in Tecumseh, have never completely vanished. Of course the welcoming process is not the same. When my husband, kids and I moved into our house nearly a year ago there were no neighbors to greet us. No one offered to lend a hand unloading the truck, no one brought a cake or casserole, and no one came by to chat. Even now the neighbors seem to keep to themselves. People who pass by on the sidewalk out front don't even look toward the house. So what happened to the so called "welcome wagon?" A couple of weeks after we moved in a woman came to see us. She said she was from the "welcome wagon." Instead of baked goods or casseroles she brought coupons, discounts and some free items from the local businesses. Though she was sincere in welcoming us to the community, she was not concerned with getting to know us.
Our First Home
Intimacy and Small Town Community
Unfortunately, some people are actively resisting the intimacy of the small town community. Scott Russell Sanders speaks of a woman who moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington, Indiana who told him that "she would not be able to stay. . .long because she was already beginning to recognize people in the grocery stores, on the sidewalks, in the library. Being surrounded by familiar faces made her nervous, after years in a city where she could range about anonymously." I like being surrounded by familiar faces but even though I recognize some of these faces I don't know the people behind them. I long for a community that genuinely cares for its members--that provides a feeling of belonging. It's hard for me to understand why anyone would feel otherwise.
Fortunately I am not alone in this; it seems others have been feeling the loss of community too. The porch is becoming a thing of value again. People are looking for homes with porches, building houses with porches or putting porches on the front of their present homes. According to Charles Shiver "The yuppies are wanting to relive the quaintness of 'Smallville'." They think that porches can help recapture the feeling of familiarity that was so natural for "Smallville." We all need to feel that we belong and many of us are beginning to realize it.
Of course, architecture is not the only thing hampering revitalization of community. Television, automobiles, and crime also conspire to keep people to themselves. Apathy, though , is probably the worst culprit. Maybe we could all turn off the television set and go for a walk or sit in front of the house, but most importantly, we need to socialize with our neighbors. It may be a bit difficult to get that small town setting back but it is nice to see any steps taken toward regaining community.
Strand of Pearls
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