Weekly Edgework #74 - November 28, 2005

Solitary Confinement

Sociology experts point to the 1950s as a pivotal period in the development of a culture of isolation. It was during this era that (North) Americans began to build places to live that have turned out to be more of a prison than a home – we know these places as the suburbs. (The Connecting Church, by Randy Frazee, p. 111)

I am old enough to remember the contours of community. Many of my younger friends don’t have a clue. Looking back over half a century, I can now see that growing up in the 1950s in rural Southern Manitoba allowed me to participate in the dying days of a culture that still cherished community values. I never gave it a thought back then that our way of life in community would soon be buried in North America. Indeed, what I then took for granted as a normal way of life has become a rare phenomenon, whether in city or country.

Back then my family and I experienced realities sociologists have identified as necessary for true to community to flourish with an ease that is unbelievable to the present generation, namely: spontaneity, availability, frequency, common meals and geography. While many of our neighbors had a telephone, we did not. So many of our connections beyond our home were quite spontaneous. We had no way of calling ahead to tell our neighbors we were coming over for a visit. We just piled into our Model A Ford and took our chances. If our first choice proved unlucky we would place any available lawn furniture up against the door of their home to let them know someone had called, and head off to our second option. Eventually we found someone at home and barged into their lives with nery a thought that this might be seen as invasive. We were doing our friends a favor by showing up unannounced!

Of course there was no question that our hosts would provide a meal for the whole family before we left. Not to have served us “faspa” would have painted them as anti-social to the nth degree. That news would have spread like wildfire. This scenario happened at least once, sometimes twice a week. Although not living within easy walking distance of each other, neighbors were available to each other. It was not uncommon for a dozen neighbors to converge on a farmstead for a full-day’s work cementing a barn floor or house foundation. And to have offered to pay for this labor would have been an insult. I remember one fall how two combines appeared on our field out of nowhere to help us finish our harvest of grain. When all was done they trailed our combine back to our yard to get their tanks filled with gasoline. Then their operators, our neighbors, came inside for a hearty meal, replete with story telling and copious laughter. The few farm friends I still have tell me that what I have just described is now a fairy tale.

Although I have not experienced it, I am told there were similar community dynamics at work in North American cities before World War II, although different in detail. Designers of cities had usually placed residences, retail stores and workplaces within walking distance of each other. Houses had porches on the front, where their occupants spent summer evenings, waving at and sometimes chatting with passersby. There were no televisions or air-conditioners to keep them inside and few automobiles to allow for an easy escape to parts beyond. Neighbors knew each other and looked out for each other’s children. It was not uncommon for neighborhood friends to walk to the local park to share a picnic lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Spontaneity, availability, frequency, common meals, and proximity assured community without even giving it much thought. That too is now mostly a fairy tale.

With the economic boom following the war came a breakdown of community. With cash and credit more readily available, and the advent of the automobile, there began a mass exodus of middle-class North Americans to the suburbs. And through some kind of unwitting alchemy the highest value in the suburbs soon became that of privacy. Before too long new houses in the suburbs sported double car garages on their fronts, where porches had once been. And backyard fences shot up from three feet to six feet like barley shoots up after a soft summer rain. Not having any place to walk to, and television and air-conditioning luring them inside, occupants of these houses saw each other mostly as they passed each other in their air-conditioned cars soon to be swallowed up by attached garages opened and closed, as though by magic, with electronic door openers.

Solitary confinement. Walking on treadmills while watching the news of violence in far away places. Suspicious of neighbors whose names remain unknown. Installing security systems in homes. Doors permanently locked. (Remember, you can enter and exit through the garage that opens and closes by means of contemporary witchcraft.) Backyard barbecues known only to neighbors by aromas seeping through tall fences and other blinds. Few meals taken together, even as a family. Full-time jobs for both parents to pay for this hideaway used mostly for sleeping. Children scattered across the city at activities that don’t respect family time. Telephones that ring mostly to try to sell you something or sign you up for another credit card. And church, for those who go, is another escapade through the opening and closing garage door. Solitary confinement. Virtual prison.

No wonder that studies have declared North America, while being richer by far than most other places, also the loneliest place on earth. It’s time to fight back. To reclaim community. Riot in the suburbs! Burn down fences! Challenge developers to a dual! Or if you are more timid than that, cut down your fence by half or remove it altogether, then wave to your startled neighbor on the other side. Replace your garage with a porch. Play games on your front lawn. Start playing soccer or hockey on the street in front of your house. Begin… (you fill in the blanks). We were created for community, not solitary confinement!