Dissolution of Community

Wretchard the Cat notes in the comments at the Belmont Club:

But back when society was more village-like, for want of a better term, people minded each other more. They knew when you were sick, physically or mentally, and other stuff besides. Nowadays that is less true. One of the prices that may have to be paid for privacy and the dissolution of community is that when you go nuts you are on your own. You face a cliff function with no gradient. One moment everybody’s humoring you. The next moment the SWAT team’s there.

It’s definitely less true. Growing up I knew all the neighbors. We even had neighbors over for dinner, to chat, and would go over there to play. I knew, for instance, about the neighbor next door who’s son had come down with mental illness, probably schizophrenia, though I never heard a diagnosis on that count. He was not a paranoid, I don’t think, and not a problem in the neighborhood. He struggled with it for several years until, unable to take it anymore, he blew a hole in his chest with his dad’s 12 gauge. Needless to say he did not survive.

I was also aware of the mental illness of another neighbor, who through drugs and alcohol, ended up getting hauled off by the police after shooting at Japanese planes he was certain were circling overhead. Somehow back then they managed to pull an armed man out of his attic without the use of a SWAT team too. The police knew of him before the incident, and were trying to convince the realtors that managed that house to evict the family, so they’d become someone else’s problem. Despite the availability of prosecuting him for buying guns illegally, to the best of my knowledge, that never happened. He did not talk to neighbors, except to remind them that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, just in case they weren’t aware, but the neighborhood certainly talked about him.

Today I barely know my neighbors. I know their names, but I don’t know their business, and they don’t know mine. Even as little as 20 years ago we knew our neighbor’s business, because everybody talked to each other. I’m not sure what happened, or what’s been happening, but I am as much a part of the phenomena as anyone else. It’s not like I’ve made an effort to get to know neighbors. Perhaps we put, for some reason, less value on the idea of neighborhood as we used to, at least beyond good school districts and stable housing values. Does moving next to someone mean you should be friends with them? What made that idea go away?

15 thoughts on “Dissolution of Community”

  1. Hmm, I know my neighbors very well. Some better than others. I certainly know the ones that abut my lot well. I wouldn’t say you need to be friends, but being on good terms with them is a huge help. My neighbor with the snow blower cleaned my sidewalk this morning, and I help my other neighbor with yardwork. They keep an eye on things for us when we’re away.

    I dunno if I’d want to be good friends with them either, because if by chance I get sick of them, they’re still right there….

  2. You know … the difference is as much kids as anything else.

    I know all my neighbors because my kids play with theirs, my kids play on the street, and while our kids are out the parents tend to congregate and talk.

    And if you have the right kind of person in the neighborhood (like my wife) talk turns into plans for things like 4th of July street parties, Christmas progressive dinners, etc.

    The other difference is in community size. In the small town I grew up in we knew of everybody, including the problem people. But now my subdivision has more people than that whole town and they don’t all go to the same store or work in the same few places … so it is different in that respect.

    But kids definitely get you involved in the community. In those wealthy days when we were DINK’s and most meals were eaten out … we didn’t know our neighbors that well at all.

  3. My neighbor, an ex mechanic who’s given me a lot of advice on carwork, has a snowblower also does my sidewalks and even my driveway if I haven’t gotten to it. And besides coming to his parties (he has to invite us or we’ll call the police with a noise complaint ;-) ) we occasionally take them out to dinner or get them a gift card.

    Either of which is cheaper than a snowblower or a paid auto consultant.

  4. Q: Does moving next to someone mean you should be friends with them? What made that idea go away?

    A: Cable TV and the Internet.

    Now I many be the exception. I know most of the neighbors in my community of 64 homes, but it is because I am on the board of my homeowners association.

  5. Personally, I have a somewhat raw memory of the years of the Clinton regime, and the way 70% of the public supported his Kristallnacht against gun owners, based on the alleged crime of having small dongs. So pardon me if I’m not too eager to treat those Nazis like long-lost brothers.

  6. Ed makes a good point. I feel I know some of you fellows better than my co-workers or my neighbors. Of couse, it is risky talking about guns and freedom too intimately with people who know where you live. My best friend and his family lived only 2 miles sway when I first met them (rural area). His job and ministry have taken them farther away now, but he is still my closest confidant. Thank goodness Al didn’t invent the internet 20 years ago or I probably would never have met my best friend! (That was a joke!)

  7. I know all my neighbors, and many have changed. I am the Harley riding gun guy who everyone goes out of their way to tell me how wonderful and behaved my 4 children are. (Sometimes I think they mean it as if surprised) This morning I used the 12 HP snow blower to clear 5 houses and driveways. The older people really appreciate it. I might get a bottle of wine occasionally.(I don’t drink) But I just do it when I can. My older neighbor next door hand shoveled his entire drive way, over 100 feet before 6 AM. I asked him why, he said, “I was up, why not?”
    Both parents work now, at least in my neighborhood that is the case, when I was young, most Moms were home. We used to run in and out of other homes all the time. Dinner was anywhere you might end up. Today, at least with my kids, we don’t let them eat at neighbors hardly ever and we don’t allow sleepovers. My kids, my choice.
    But I am very social and gregarious still. Many people are introverted, like my wife. She would be the one no one knows.

  8. During the past two or three years, I’ve wondered if I should go door-to-door around my block, and introduce myself to my neighbors–tell them who I am, where I live, etc. I haven’t yet, in large part, because I’m rather shy; I also don’t have the time, so I don’t think about doing it all that much.

    But it’s been something on my mind, too.

  9. I wonder if there is a correlation between the rise of HOAs and a decline in neighbor interactions? In more strict HOAs, perhaps it contributes to a hostility or mistrust between neighbors. Perhaps that or the rise of media reporting that blows out of proportions dangers to ourselves and children in our daily interactions. Who knows?

  10. Size has a lot to do with it. In 1790, there were only about five real cities (and they would be considered medium-sized towns today). At least 95% of the population lived in a rural area or a village of 500 people or less. You knew your neighbors, and you knew them well. You knew who was a stranger.

    We can’t go back, unfortunately.

  11. I grew up 5 miles south of Philadelphia, and now live 5 miles North of Philadelphia. I also think wealth has something to do with it too. It may also be because I had a full time stay-at-home mom who got to know all the neighbors.

  12. Good post. Here in suburban Seattle I know all my neighbors except one and have all their emails and phone numbers. Heck, I’ve been shooting with three of them and am helping one pick his first handgun. He taught me to shoot trap in return.

    Ironically Seattle is often known as an unfriendly place but I’ve not found that to be true. I’m still friends with people that were our neighbors ten years ago.

    It might help that most of my neighbors either don’t have kids or their kids are grown up. I’ve noticed the folks with young kids are often the least sociable as we have little in common with them.

  13. Dannytheman’s post brought back poignant memories; as a kid, decades ago, dinner really was wherever you ended up, and the whole neighborhood was the setting for each day’s adventure (unsupervised by adults). There was trust then.

    I know one neighborhood now where they try to have block parties once a year, and one of the wives set up an e-mail chain to keep everyone posted on neighborhood events, from a new birth to a burglary.

    Electronic means of communication are good, but the personal interaction is what is so essential. But we’ve lost innocence as a society somehow, and trust (and the concomitant face-time) went along with it.

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