On a cold Saturday morning, walking with my son’s Cub Scout pack as we collected cans of food for the needy, I saw a pickup truck I liked. It was early, and the few residents we saw out and about looked a bit the worse for wear, many hotfooting it out in pajamas across cold sidewalks to pick up the paper.
Polished metallic blue, the truck that caught my eye had a flat cover over the bed, rigid and the same shade as the rest of the vehicle. It made for a unified, sleek machine. I grew up in Detroit, where we appreciate a well customized set of wheels. The owner of the truck emerged from one of the townhouses, looking a bit bleary himself. His arms were filled with tools. He opened the pop-top and began placing them next to their neighbors in the truck bed. With all those tools, I could tell he was a builder.
Nice truck lid, I told him as we walked past. Makes it easier on the job site, he replied. No one will steel your tools.
The neighborhood we were walking through is one of some renown among community planners. It is an early example of “planned unit developments,” an approach to neighborhood-building that tries to incorporate recreation with living space. All different social strata are intended to mingle in this neighborhood. Some houses are pretty upscale, with lawns and fences, while other cul-de-sacs include town homes pressed together like you’d see in many other apartment complexes. Mostly built in the late 1960’s, the whole place has an integrated, ordinary feeling to it. Walking the sidewalks, it is the uniformity that strikes one, and that also gives a comforting sense that the folks here feel they belong. It’s as if, pressed close together, no one wants to appear too ostentatious. Having lived in a small, northern New England town for a few years, I can relate to the desire not to stand out too much.
In this experiment in encouraging people to mix together who might not otherwise, we in the Cub Scout pack gathered an astounding amount of food, filling our own truck bed and more.
Just up the road, there are newer developments, with bucolic sounding names, names that evoke the forest and sound vaguely British. These, too, are mixed use communities, planned with recreation centers and commercial areas. But, all is fancy-new. The smart, upscale homes have picket fences to mark their property edges, the cars are shiny and German. Private alarm companies have posted signs in front of many houses. The apartment units, set aside for the non-homeowners, even have a glow to them.
There’s no feeling of integration here. Each house is an island.
Driving through these neighborhoods (there are not so many sidewalks so one doesn’t necessarily walk), one sees heavy digging equipment and mounds of dirt down every street. New structures are going up all over the place.
It’s filled with the kind of job sites that the fellow from Saturday morning might drive his truck to. Carpenters, masons, foremen are everywhere. Work is getting done, a race against winter to get roofs sealed. And, so worries my friend with the pop-top, tools are getting stolen. These kinds of things happen in transient spots, where no one really knows anyone. Like many job sites including, evidently, the ones in these new places.
I can’t help but think those clever planners had a hand in the homey feeling from Saturday morning. It’s the sidewalks. The neighborhood is laid out so people have to see one another, have to mingle while on foot. A sense of place has built up — they hold a communal yard sale each year, and host an annual party at the rec center’s pool where dogs are encouraged to take a dip. People know one another. And, they remember to place their unused cans of food on the porch for those who may not have any.
Meanwhile, one of my son’s classmates lives in one of the new developments. With no sidewalks to stroll, his parents do not yet know their neighbors. They look around and wonder where the other kids play. Their street really seems an archipelago, with disconnected home-islands containing families stranded behind bay windows.
It’s not fair to judge the new developments too harshly. They haven’t had time to grow into real communities. How will these places feel in ten years? Will Cub Scout packs collect bags of food, and will neighbors know one another? Or, instead, will they glide by one another with windows rolled up?
The fences and ubiquitous alarm signs are hurdles to be overcome. And they could use a few sidewalks. Still, people have a way of developing an allegiance to where they live, and this comes out in ways small and large. Block parties, yard sales, and potlucks may yet thrive if these folks can get to know one another.
That’s all a ways off. For now, it’s job sites and islands of grass amidst newly-turned dirt.