Sunday, July 8, 2012

Virtual Actuality

"A neighbor is a person who can get to your house in less than a minute and takes two hours to go back home."

-----O.A. Battista

At their core, I believe most people are essentially lonely or live in fear of being alone.  I do not confuse being alone with the more comfortable and peaceful notion of solitude. Social media now provide the intrusive opportunity for us to be reached constantly, instantly and effortlessly.  When we get an email, a twitter, or a posting on our Facebook page, it is an external acknowledgement of our existence and reassurance-that we are not alone.  We are starving to feel connected. Cell phone and text message chimes trigger a Pavlovian slobber response to the arrival of each small tidbit of attention. They are the equivalent of mental cotton candy for the soul that craves a full meal.  A text is fast food cheap and easy but hardly satisfies compared to the feast of a handwritten letter arriving in the mail.

How did this happen? What makes us feel so isolated?  Part of the answer will become immediately apparent if you look closely.  I discovered it by casually observing the change over the years, in architecture and design of neighborhoods.  Well, we haven’t actually built a neighborhood lately.  Older cities still have grids of inter-woven and connected streets.  There is a mix of people and activities available all within walking distance. 
We don’t plan this way anymore though. Developers have unwittingly and negatively contributed to great, cultural change. They have managed to create spaces that have no sense of “place”.   As property values soared within cities and their immediate environs they pushed the suburbs further and further up the interstate into less costly rural areas.  Now, instead of building neighborhoods, they threw up isolated, dead end, cul-de-sac subdivisions along what used to be two lane country roads.   Unlike some of the originally designed bedroom communities like Levittown in NY, these are built completely without access to any mass transit or connection to the city other than the interstate. Most of the two lane roads do not have adequate shoulders, much less sidewalks that could be safely negotiated by cyclists or pedestrians.  These unconnected neighborhoods ensnare their residents into the trap of having to drive everywhere and this is further reinforced by zoning restrictions that forbid locating things like grocery stores, restaurants and other commercial amenities anywhere convenient.  There’s no “there” there and no “place” to be or go without spending endless hours in a car.  Furthermore, since everyone else’s poorly planned subdivision also dumps out into on the same meandering country road, left turns become impossible and the road is rapidly choked beyond its originally intended capacity. Do we have to wonder why traffic has become unbearable in these regions?  

What about the houses in the subdivisions themselves? Take a good look.  What’s missing?  Any kids in the front yard?  How about front porches? Do you see ANY people outside?

I am fortunate to live in one of the older neighborhoods in my city.  While out walking my dog I noticed that in one particular area, not only did some of houses have front porches; these same sections of the neighborhood also had sidewalks- the original social networks.  When I researched further I discovered that the area that had the houses where porches and sidewalks coincided happened to be in the section of the neighborhood that was designed prior to WWII.   Once the boundary is crossed between pre and post war construction, sidewalks and porches mysteriously and simultaneously vanish. What happened? Was there some conspiracy after WWII to eliminate sidewalks and front porches or was something else going on?

Here are a few theories…

1.  We weren’t going to need to walk again.  Neighborhoods were being designed with the automobile rather than pedestrian in mind.  The Jetson’s were the personification of the idealized, sci-fi family for which the new neighborhoods were being constructed. 

The “FUTURE” (insert full echo effects here) was envisioned as a time for humanity to become labor free. We were going to zip around in our flying cars, no fuss no muss, never having to lift a finger again.  What little exercise we might require could be had by running endless treadmills, completely removed from the environment.  “Outdoors” had somehow become a dirty word. 

What has happened to the state of our health since this mentality became pervasive?  Huge leaps in morbid obesity for one thing.  Of course there are many contributing factors but I’m certain this is one of them. We travel everywhere in our climate controlled vehicles because even short distances are too difficult or dangerous to negotiate on foot. We travel removed and insulated from our surroundings, just like the Jetson’s except they still haven’t managed to invent the flying car yet.

2.  Central air conditioning in homes became standard equipment... 

Obviously this had its practical application especially here in the south.  But what did we lose once we gained climate control? The front porch had always served as a cooler place to sit after dinner until bedtime, while the rest of the house was cooling down.  It was an essential part of the house.  Someone must have decided that since we had air conditioning we no longer had a reason to build porches. These days we would call it multitasking but out on the front porch a family might have spent their evenings doing one of any number things. A few things come to mind:star gazing, sewing, reading, telling stories, playing games, listening to music, enjoying a cool drink or any combination thereof. While you were out there it was only natural that you might wave to or even strike up conversations with your neighbors that happened to be walking by.  It was how genuine connections were forged and reinforced.  All of that is mostly gone now.  Not entirely, but it’s much less common than it used to be.  People are feeling the effects of the isolation from our fellow human beings and are instead turning longingly to digital surrogates. 

I’d like to offer a suggestion. How about instead of “friending” our next door neighbors and chatting virtually on Facebook, we all make the effort to restore our sidewalks and front porches. At the very least, get outside and wave to your neighbors. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.