Columns 2008

Making a neighborhood

It’s racing towards summer in Anchorage.  People finally feel safe putting their snow shovels away and getting their wading boots and rakes out. Studded tires are removed and replaced by sweetly quiet regular tires that give new meaning to a smooth ride…unless, of course, you accidentally drop off into the pothole from hell that seems to follow me around town like a puppy.

This is one of those times of the year when you have to be careful what you say to relatives outside if you don’t want to get that awkward silence that always follows when you make a bright, chirpy announcement like, “It hit sixty today. Man was it hot. Everyone was running around in shorts with no coats.” You also want to ever avoid making the following statement after a two-foot snow fall at the end of April, “But it all melts right away so it’s no big deal.” People in the lower 48 simply cannot relate to those statements. They only confirm for them the feeling that you should leave the state before you lose what tentative hold on reality you might have left.

In my neighborhood, summer also means rediscovering neighbors.  In the winter, we all tend to go from car to house and back again with little to no lingering. But come summer, the kids are out playing hoops, bikes are everywhere, skate boards blossom, people ready grills and smokers for all those fish they plan to get, the sound of home repairs ring through the neighborhood, and suddenly there is life beyond moose on my block.

I find myself wondering whether the rise in gas prices won’t end up promoting this trend towards seeing actual human beings outside of their homes who are not in cars heading for the coastal trail.  Wouldn’t that be something? Because if there is one thing cars did to us, it was to isolate us from our neighbors.

People used to walk a lot or they took the trolley or bus.  All were a form of communal activity. Walking down the block to get a fresh loaf of bread for dinner when I was growing up, I’d run into others on the same errand. I’d pass the church and say hi to the priest coming out of the rectory. I’d pass Katie’s little store and stop for a moment while she told me how much I was growing and how pretty I was.  I’d see my friends at the bakery getting their evening loaf of bread. As I walked home, I’d see Santo sitting on his porch across the street from dad’s store guarding his parking space until his son brought the car back.

Dad would put his produce outside on spring and summer days and people walking by would stop to check the tomatoes and peaches, Jersey’s agricultural pride, and whether or not they bought anything, they always left something behind. Maybe it was just the latest on their son’s progress at getting upright and walking; maybe it was just a tidbit about the whiff of scandal surrounding a certain lady from around the corner and her increasingly large belly; maybe it was nothing more than a wrap up of expected summer visitors to the shore. Whatever, it was mostly trivial, insular information. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing that would make the evening news. Yet it was this idle chatter that bound the neighborhood together, gave us each a little stake in the lives of others.

Seems to me we could do with more of that nowadays. I know cell phones keep us instantly connected to all our dearest friends and relatives. But between cell phones and cars, we are isolated from the people next door and across the street in a way that would never have been permitted in my old neighborhood.

Maybe if gas prices continue to rise and we are forced carless onto the streets, we’ll rediscover that sense of neighborhood. Maybe if Anchorage put its money where its mouth is and actually funds a decent transit system, we could rediscover the joy of sitting on a bus and daydreaming while watching the city roll by until we reach out stop. 

Maybe we can be eco-friendly, wean ourselves from oil and become good neighbors again.  It’s a dream worth pursuing.