From my second floor apartment, my first wife and I had been listening to our downstairs neighbors, two young men in mortuary school, fight– thirty minutes of screaming, pounding, breaking glass and furniture. When one of them yelled, "I should get a knife and stab you," I knew it was time to leave my private place and enter the community of the apartment building we shared.
I ran down the stairs in time to see one man run naked into the foyer. He caught my eye and threw himself down, curled into the fetal position. His partner followed, nodded as if saying hello to me. I’d shared tomatoes from my two-plant garden with them; they’d helped me with reception on my cable TV. That was the extent of our interaction, but it was enough for me to feel comfortable asking, "What’s the problem?" They invited me inside to talk.
It turned out the issue was a common one – a relationship where one partner wanted more freedom than the other. After several hours of venting, they didn’t have a solution, but they were able to deal more calmly with one another.
It doesn’t seem like much, but that interaction reveals what I believe creates community in urban areas. People in a shared geographic location who may or may not share beliefs, values, and culture, but who share space and have respect for each others' individual needs, while also being aware of how individual actions might impact others in the community around them. With that awareness comes a sense of responsibility to one another. Community is about people willing to be attentive to those around them, and willing to act on problems that might affect others in the community.
I didn’t have that my last few years in high school, when my family had moved to a suburban neighborhood. Yes, we lived in proximity to others, but there was no real connection to anyone. If we knew a neighbor, it was as a name. No one helped each other. We were all isolated by the space of yards and streets. I rarely heard a human voice come through from the outside. I spent hours waiting for phone calls from someone in another suburb, waiting to be picked up in a car, peeking out from curtains to spy at the quiet houses, the occasional strange figure mowing or raking a lawn. I had no relationships with those around me.
The American Dream has always mistakenly valued distance, space. Houses with so many rooms – a private one for each family member, kids play room, man cave, a woman’s space of her own – you can go for days without ever seeing half the people you are related to. Houses surrounded by barriers of landscaping, fences, and wide streets. It’s not a new idea to say this breeds isolation.
But the inverse is rarely examined. We compare living in close quarters to rats in mazes. But only infrequently do we recognize the positive attributes inherent in living close to others; the exposure to new ideas and culture, the broadening of one’s experiences, the sense that you have a stake in what happens to others, the opportunities to interact. In the suburbs, those barren lawns prevent you from crossing the street to find out why the police car is at your neighbor’s house; you don’t even speak directly to your neighbor about it. In a city, when the police show up outside your apartment building, half the residents open their doors and ask what’s going on. Wondering how this affects them, their community. Looking to see if there’s something they need to do.
When I lived in Boston, and Pittsburgh, and Seattle, and, to some extent Raleigh, I knew what was happening with those in the community we shared. I helped clean the bathroom for the 80-year-old women who fell, and people invited me to dinner when I lost my job. The distraught woman in the apartment next door told me her boyfriend, who I often talked to about baseball, had stolen their child, and I was able to jog down the sidewalk and find out what he wanted, help him discover a solution that wouldn’t land him in jail. The homeless man I gave a bag of groceries to at the Food Pantry, returned the favor by explaining how the mental health system works when I had to admit a friend. I didn’t go to the movies with any of these people, or a play, or dine with them at a restaurant. But we all helped each other when we recognized the other needed help. We all knew we were connected in this community, and there was something we could do to help one of our members, and our community, function better.
In the impersonal world of suburban markets, where everyone scans their own groceries, receives a newspaper dropped anonymously at the end of their driveway, eats at each new restaurant that opens, there is no connection – it is all self interest, efficiency, and diversion.
In the city, community is created when the clerk who knows your face lets you take the sandwich, trusting you’ll be back tomorrow to pay. When the guy at the newspaper kiosk remembers your interest in the Red Sox and sums up last night’s game for you as he hands you the Boston Globe. When the owner of the small café invites you in after he has closed and personally cooks you something to eat.
In the suburbs, the connections are made with family when they visit – or you visit them. This usually occurs around holidays, when relatives gather around tables and televisions. In the cities, you may have family over for Thanksgiving, but you’re also just as likely to invite the Russian émigré with nowhere to go, the deaf woman and her new baby, the refugee from El Salvador who lives down the street. And they bring to the feast, instead of jello pudding, a chessboard, folk songs from home, a lesson on how to speak a poem in another language.
It is a set of interactions, human behaviours that have meaning and expectations between its members. Not just action, but actions based on shared expectations, values, beliefs and meanings between individuals. Interdependent.