Radio address for May 3, 2014, a continuation of the previous episode. There are lots of reasons not to like cookie-cutter suburban developments, but: there may be an upside.
Mention is made of A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Egnle and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis, and also (somewhat obliquely) of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John Le Carre.
Closing music is An Old Peasant Like Me from the Prince Avalanche soundtrack.
From Ciphers, a book of suburban photography. Photo by Christoph Gielen.
We are situated now in an well-maintained old farmhouse. Over the last 130 years or so the structure has grown twice and the land has shrunk to a mere 10 acres. Now you can see two of the neighbors’ houses, at least when the trees are bare. The closest “original” neighbor might be the farm up the street where there are still cattle grazing.
Yet the social dimension is nearly identical to your suburban “hell.” We generally maintain with our neighbors that benign distance which is further removed than an active dislike could be. We ourselves are too much an anomaly not to be talked about – we thirteen blood relations all living in one building, only three less than 18 years aged – but only one neighbor on the street has engaged us in social trade.
In part this reflects the familial preference which motivated us to choose this place at the first. But those with a more social inclination have ranged further than the four miles of our “street”. Why? It must be that we discover social compatibility through something other than geography. Was this even possible in the “good old days” of community? Even today the commonest community bonds are geographic: schoolmates and work colleagues are the numeric majority of most people’s acquaintances. They may not be the strongest bonds but they are the most frequent. The novelty is that even these bonds tend not to last long; increasingly the relationships in one arena do not overlap with another; and we spend the least interactive time in our homes than of any other place we frequent.
Thus I make the suggestion (not original) that it is not the suburb itself to be blamed, but the automobile. When I analyze the lack of a local or home-based community it seems to be caused by people seeking their interests: you might go to a symphony while your neighbor goes to a baseball game and another goes to a bar. The lack of proximate community seems to me to be fundamentally caused by having choices. The only way to restore community would seemingly be to remove freedoms (though that alone may not be sufficient).
This further suggests to me that love of others, Samaritan-love, is constituted largely of giving up choices. To be pro-choice is to be anti-other (but in ways far larger than our current political labeling comprehends). Now I don’t mean that people can be forced to love better by forcibly taking away their options—prisons are not known principally for their loving communities of mutual service. Hermits, misanthropes, and “un-neighborly neighbors” existed before the advent of the automobile. But improving the “community” character of my own activities may require doing more activities I don’t particularly care for, rather than more activities to which I am intrinsically attracted.
The suburban anonymity you describe spreads beyond the suburbs. Here out in the country I feel the same sense of isolation. I have known my neighbors all my life, but in a remote way, with the sense that challenging the status quo of our non-relationship would be fraught with suspicion and discomfort. This morning about 7am I awoke to a thunderstorm. I went out in the pouring rain as the hail started to crack against the windows to put the truck away. I found a passing vehicle had taken refuge under my maple tree. They mistook my wild gesticulations to follow me down to the machine shed to safety as a threat, and edged sheepishly away until I came up to their window to make the invitation clearer. I think a lot of it comes down to the economics of communication. I can Skype with my brother in Mumbai-no monetary cost, no emotional risk. I can walk over to chat with my neighbor, same monetary cost, higher emotional risk. Even though the risk is still low, (“Maybe I’ll run out of things to say.”, or “Maybe he’s busy and I’ll bother him.”) the flat monetary cost between options makes interacting with my neighbor more rare.