ROSE NOLEN: Healing our communities is a challenge of the 21st century

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:34 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I will always be grateful for the fact that I was able to spend part of my childhood in a small town and the other years growing up in the city. I am astonished when I remember how my life was so radically different then than it would be today in either location. In both cases, I lived in neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else, where kids played in the streets or vacant lots together, where grownups sat on each others' porches in the summer and the milkman left milk on everybody's doorstep.

For years, people have been sharing the legend that neighborly friendliness only happens in small towns. People who grew up in cities several decades or so ago know that's not true. Most of us have great memories of growing up in our city neighborhoods. There were very few differences between the ways the neighbors in both locations behaved then and there aren't many difference between the ways some of them behave now.

People moving into many small towns trying to find the close-knit neighborhood of bygone days will probably be disappointed.

What's different? Circumstances have changed, people have changed and minds have changed. Let's talk first about the way circumstances have changed. First of all there is no longer a grocery store on the corner. There are few places where goods and services are available where you can walk to with your best friend or send your kid to shop on her bicycle. If people want goods and services they have to drive the car to get them and most of them don't shop for the neighborhood. So for one block that means at least 10 to 15 unshared automobiles on the road to pick up each family's items. The grocery store, the drug store, the clothing store and all the other stores are usually miles away in a shopping center. In addition to that, in some areas development and construction are proceeding relentlessly, eating up all the green spaces.

People have changed. They once worked in plants and offices where everyone stopped at twelve o'clock for lunch, which they ate in association with their co-workers in cafeterias or out of their lunch buckets while they chatted or played cards with each other. Now a lot of people work in the same buildings in separate cubicles and have lunch at different times. They sometimes go out for lunch alone or on business or run other errands. Some are either working, going to doctor or dental appointments, going to the gym, visiting teachers, carting kids around to after school activities, taking care of elderly parents or a thousand other things that keep them too busy or too stressed out to spend time being neighborly.

Minds changed. The old neighborhoods that had been good enough for two or three earlier generations of a family, suddenly the houses weren't nice enough or big enough or the kind of new people that were moving in weren't like them, so it was time to move on. So, the new neighborhood is full of new people from all kinds of neighborhoods and nobody has time to make new friends or visit old friends. The old neighborhoods and the new neighborhoods are fragmented by strangers living in isolation.

Neighborhoods have fallen apart in a lot of places. People have lost the sense of security that came with knowing the people next door as someone you call if you needed help. Somehow, there's been a disconnect from the central thought that whatever happens in this place, we are all in it together.

No, let's face it, most of us feel that we're in it by ourselves. When someone occasionally reaches out and offers us a helping hand, we're alarmed and suspicious. Even though in our guts we know we can't handle everything by ourselves, we feel obligated to pretend that we can.

Communities are made up of neighborhoods. When our neighborhoods are broken our communities get sick. And I think one of the challenges of the Twenty-First Century is going to be how to heal our communities. As forward-thinkers keep reminding us if we cannot heal our own broken communities, how can we possibly attempt to unify and build alliances with foreigners around the world?

Those who are working hard to keep us divided in this country are playing a dangerous game. Ultimately, our survival as a nation may well depend upon the strength of our unity. How many for Russian roulette?

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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Ray Shapiro August 24, 2010 | 12:22 p.m.

This article is a good start, but needs more.
In Columbia for instance, the term "neighborhood" is very rarely used to describe where one lives.
(In fact, the term degraded into a negative when shortened to "hood.")
And developers with their cookie cutter subdivisions and cul-de-sacs add to the obliteration of even the "feel" of neighborhood.
("Cul-de-Sacs: Suburban Dream or Dead End?")
And I blame the Chamber of Commerce for not encouraging local area "Welcome Wagons," where established neighbors reach out to the new families on the block.
So too at fault are the supposed city leaders for failing to foster and encourage "neighborhood block parties," by advertising the availability of street closing permits.
Churches no longer are the center of the "neighborhood" and compete to become "hoods" of their own. The busing of students to schools on the other side of town isolate themselves and the essence of a "neighborhood school" disappears.
Children no longer play outside, "in the streets" while parents sit on porches together watching and talking with each other.
Trees are removed from Subdivisions and the sterility hampers the inhabitants connection with nature and each other until a few backyard gardens flourish and sharing vegetables with each other might take place.
While grocery stores are a few blocks away and local seniors would welcome an offer from neighbors' children for assistance with errands or mowing or snow shoveling, little encouragement is given for them to do so. Civics is no longer taught in schools. Being a good "Boy Scout" has become more about the youngsters' own accomplishments and less about what it means to be a good neighbor.
Neighborhood watch and Neighborhood Associations are more about protection, rules and politics.
Perhaps it's time to readdress family values and Neighborhood dynamics.
It is something that needs to be done locally and consciously as social engineering permeates where and how we live.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 24, 2010 | 4:02 p.m.

Today "neighborhood" has, as Ray has suggested, a negative connotation. It is viewed as something one might like to escape from, if he or she were able to do so.

Some of the situations cited are NOT subject to reversal. We cannot realistically bulldoze shopping malls and large full-service grocery stores in order to bring back mom and pop in-neighborhood stores. Everything would cost more, due to loss of economies of scale.

A more realistic solution would be for neighbors to work together at the neighborhood level. Don't ever wait for government to do something! Would boot strapping in the neighborhood be easy? Most things worthwhile aren't easy.

In the city where I grew up and at the time I was growing up there were no school buses taking students to and from school. You either walked (WALKED!) or took public transportation. I don't recall horrible things happening to students who did so, but in those days people professed believe in God.

(Report Comment)

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