Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rumpus Readers on Neighborhood - The Rumpus.net

The Rumpus, a San Fransisco-based online literary and culture magazine co-founded by author Stephen Elliott, recently issued a call for reader submissions on the topic of neighborhood- 500 words or less.

As this post by NRDC's Kaid Bensfield so eloquently points out, neighborhoods, not cities, are the locus for defining our connection to place. They embody the spatial increments which circumscribe our daily existence and create (or preclude) the opportunities we have (or don't) for meeting the people who surround us.

Ray LaHood, Secretary for the US Department of Transportation, defines neighborhood this way.  Richard Florida has another take. According to Wendell Berry, local economies depend on them.

I have an ideal mental image of "neighborhood" and I am not sure that I have ever lived in one.  My first image derives, of course, from Sesame Street's "Who Are The People in Your Neighborhood."  I picture a bustling street with people milling about. I think of corner stores, neighborhood Christmas get-togethers, local eateries, dropping by, informal Friday night dinners at a friend's house, and "regulars".

I had a taste of this kind of neighborhood in college, in the student ghettoes of Ann Arbor, where on front porches festooned with decomposing couches, students congregated in impromptu, informal gatherings. I had another taste while visiting friends in Portland, Oregon, and again in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Before and since those college years,  I have always lived in suburban, single-family residential "neighborhoods."  The one I live in now is nice.  I can walk to a downtown area in about ten minutes in one direction, and to a park with a river in the other. People are out walking dogs and kids  in the evenings when the weather is nice.

Yet I feel something is missing, something that I can't quite put my finger on.  I don't feel connected to the community.  I don't feel part of my neighborhood.

I am intent on finding ways to be more connected.

Here's what I've learned about living in the suburbs: you meet people in your job and through other interests, but because you spend so much time away from home or inside of your home, meeting your neighbors takes effort. And because everyone you know from the other parts of your life  (which take place in other land uses) live so far away, having a social life takes a lot of planning. And, of course, driving.

The Rumpus' readers delve into some of these themes with some delicate, beautiful writing. Here is a sampling:

Aimee Loselle writes on the ideologies we manufacture about our childhood neighborhoods:

I’ve never found the same sense of belonging I had when I was ten, running home on a July evening, tan and tired from playing tag and kill-the-man-with-the-ball, ready to eat meatloaf and read a book in my bedroom or watch “Private Benjamin” or “The Greatest American Hero” on television. My house was mostly silent by then, everyone in retreat. Yet the neighborhood streetlights and kitchen windows were seemingly stable and warm outside my own lit room. I fell for that illusion. I had to believe, even as it shredded around me. Although I don’t believe anymore, I still have the longing. For something unchanging and full of sentiment. For something that doesn’t exist.

Ray Shea contemplates the illusory, arbitrary borders we construct in our neighborhoods:

I’ve never been past the La Chica. It’s not a neighborhood I avoid, it’s just that it’s all houses and apartment buildings and I don’t know anybody who lives there. I only go to the edge, to the taco truck. I wish I spoke Spanish. I wish I could hang around and drink beer, talk to the men, while my children play in the parking lot. It feels nice.
Sam Jasperh satirizes the isolation that suburban neighborhoods can engender:
After two years’ residency, you can try sitting on your porch, which constitutes a breach of neighborhood etiquette, with a sign lettered: “Seeking friendship. Apply within.”
Find the local indie bookstore, drive the fifteen miles to it, park in the very large lot. Walk in and case the place, like you would if you were planning to rob it. Make small talk with the clerk. You’ll most likely be the only person in the place.
Joan Mathieu describes the crime and poverty of a skid row neighborhood, then points out:
But here’s the thing. Bank robbers and car thieves make better neighbors than doctors, lawyers, and TV actresses, the sort of people I once called neighbor before fortune blasted me against the rocks. Those people never came out of their houses, and when they did never spoke to me, and when they spoke to me it was to tell me to keep my fucking dog out of their yard.

Read more at:
Readers Report Back From… Neighborhood - The Rumpus.net:

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