I grew up in a modest neighbourhood in a suburb of Chicago in the 1960s. My parents built their first home there in 1958 for the princely sum of $19,000! It was a three-bedroom ranch that shared the same basic design with a row of ranches on the south side of the street. On the north side were a line of one-and-a-half storey bungalows with dormers on the roofs. As children we played regularly with the other children who lived around us, and our parents generally knew each other and would occasionally be at each other’s homes. The elementary school was right on the opposite corner from us, and we mixed freely together in the school and playground.
Although this was not an old neighbourhood, having been laid out shortly after the end of the war, it was a good neighbourhood where people chatted with each other and seemed to have a sense of community.
There were some colourful characters living near us. The elderly couple we all feared because they didn’t like children playing in their yard. A woman whom we called “Mrs Fritzy” after the eponymous dachshund she walked past our house every day. The man who had spent 10 years in the Soviet GULAG and travelled around lecturing on the threat of communism. The sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who briefly lived across the street and almost immediately moved away after his divorce. The professor with three PhDs who would regularly come to our house to borrow, of all things, our dictionary.
We lived there for 10 years, but they were formative years for my siblings and me. We were Presbyterians attending a public school named for a New England transcendentalist. I knew which children in my classes were protestants and which Catholic, and at least two of my teachers were evangelicals, one of whom had a Frisian surname and was a member of our church. Although a girl in my sister’s class was an atheist – an exotic specimen in my hometown – our school nevertheless put on a full Christmas programme every year, complete with carols about the birth of Christ. And then there was the Fun-a-Rama, a spring fund-raising bazaar in which everyone participated in some fashion.
Our town was in a floodplain, and an especially malodorous creek flowed behind our house. On a dare from a friend, I swung over the creek on a rope hanging from a tree branch, only to have the rope break and find myself plunging into the filthy waters below, much to the irritation of my longsuffering parents.
Having had such a wonderful childhood, I find it easy to become nostalgic about our old neighbourhood. I still dream occasionally of that ranch house in which we somehow managed to squeeze eight people – albeit not exactly comfortably. It was not a perfect neighbourhood, but we nevertheless made the time to cultivate the bonds of friendship with the people living around us.
Is this still true today? Do neighbourhoods still have a sense of community? I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but judging from my own experience I fear it may be a thing of the past. Houses are consumer items that we purchase, knowing full well that we are likely to sell them again at some point. We put a lot of our financial resources into our homes, trying to maintain and even increase their value so that they can be resold easily when the time comes. But this makes whatever community exists in a neighbourhood very transient indeed. We are committed to our homes, but less to the communities of which we are supposed to be part.
What if a group of friends were to buy up adjacent homes with the intention, not just of securing their own economic well-being, but of building community and improving the shared life of the surrounding neighbourhood? It might be even better than the neighbourhood in which I grew up so many years ago.
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