A few years ago, I was working for a town in Northeastern Ohio, meeting with their mayor and some council people. Both council and the mayor were complaining that their downtown did little more than attract vagrants- which sadly appeared to be true at the time I was visiting. They recognized this as a problem, but so easily overlooked the bigger problem- and what was (I believe) the cause of the first problem- something that was so glaringly obvious. The downtown had gone beyond being unappealing to being downright foreboding. To begin with- it wasn’t even attempting to appeal to its citizens. The windows of every first-floor storefront were either tinted or had their blinds pulled down tight. There were signs every ten feet telling you ‘No Loitering!’, ‘No Parking!’, ‘No bikes’, ‘No skating’, etc. It would have been hard to make the downtown any less inviting. On top of that, the town square had been converted into a war memorial. Of course, recognizing someones service is an honorable endeavor, but the town square may not be the best place to do it. Memorials are sacred and solemn while town squares are meant to be inviting and festive.
I asked the mayor and the council members ‘where do people in the community come to gather these days, now that downtown doesn’t serve that role?’. They had no answer. It hadn’t even occurred to them to ask.
Do we expect a sense of community to persist when we have removed the places where it once existed?
We don’t behave the same way when we interact with someone in person. When we talk to someone, face to face, we try and find common ground, there is a certain pressure, an underlying sense of decency and humanity to try and be kind…and interesting, and inquisitive, and to make the person you are talking with- feel good. Decency, kindness and civility are functions of personal interaction. Removing the places where people experience personal interaction from our communities, has cost us dearly.
People need people, we require interaction with other humans. It is seared into our DNA. Cities have always been designed in a way that fosters people convening, because city leaders and city builders understood this. No city could be a success if it didn’t accommodate for this factor. The people that built this Northeast Ohio town knew that a town square was important. They knew it would be the focal point of their community and a gathering place. Imagine you built a house, but only included bedrooms and opted for no living room or kitchen. This would be a stupid way to build, because you would no longer have any place to hang out with your family. It’s the exact same with a city. Our behavior is changing as we no longer have the places we need to be together with one another.
Our politics have declined, the author pointed out, because we no longer interact with people we don’t know. Not in-person anyway. Online, or in your car, there is a layer of disconnect and anonymity that allows people to behave like assholes. We don’t meet a stranger on the street and ask them who they voted for, we ask them about things like the weather or the local ball team. We do this, because we want to get along with them. That is the power of good public places. They bring people together, they remind us of our humanity and civility.
Every community that has favored sprawl development over traditional development, has had a hand in pulling their community apart. Maybe no one realized it at first, but we are beyond the point that anyone can claim ignorance. People haven’t change so much over time, but our places have, and people have had no choice but to adapt. Removing casual interactions with other community members has led to more distrust, more incivility, and more xenophobia.
That sense of community the author recalled from his childhood was dying or even dead. People, even in rural New Hampshire, no longer trusted one another. They were reluctant to help one another out, or even talk with people they didn’t know. What a sad state of affairs when this staple of small town America perishes. I realize that a lack of density isn’t the only culprit in our current political state of affairs, but it is without a doubt, a major contributor.
I know this, because I still see civility and kindness on display in an abundance of places. As people bump into one another on the street, at school pickup, or at one of the local shops, they are always decent to one another. They are friendly and kind and attempt to make small talk. On public transportation, I am always reminded that I am not the only one that lives in my city, but that I share it with thousands of others from all walks of life. When I walk my dog, I greet dozens of people, all out doing the same. It’s through these very interactions that I am constantly reminded that I really like people and that I need them to make my life full. That I am happy to be a part of a community. That it is the fabric of a community that makes my life better, more enriching and more complete. I realize, that some of those people I pass by everyday, probably don’t vote the same way I do, but that doesn’t matter in those moments. Because when I meet someone face to face, I am far more concerned with what we have in common and not in what divides us.
People have not changed and civility has not perished, but it has been designed out of our cities. It has been relegated to the few corners of the country that have resisted the sprawl economy and embraced tradition. People are desperate to feel connected and are much healthier and happier when they are. When sitting behind a computer screen or behind a windshield, it is easy to lose site of another’s humanity, but face to face, we can’t help escape the fact that we are all very much the same.