Monday, October 4, 2010

The Impact of Children on Neighborhood Interactions

I wrote this little exercise in applied sociology a couple of years ago.

A friend pointed out that we need not wait for an economic crash before we can have intentional neighborhood. This is true; I was just pointing out that intentional relationships within a neighborhood setting will be much more likely when people have an economic incentive to do so. And sometimes a 2x4 upside the head is the best convincer.

Speaking of neighborhood, I am reminded of a little story. Twenty years ago I knew some people in Gila, NM (north of Silver City) who had originally started out with the Lama Foundation in northern New Mexico. I asked one of the residents if they, like, you know, had a community or something. She said no, they were just trying to learn how to be good neighbors. Her answer stuck with me. I think they were the first intentional neighborhood I had ever heard about.

We’ve had a little intentional neighborhood out here in Radium Springs for the past 15 years or so: some friends, who are sustainability-oriented like we are, moved onto my parents’ land to the north of us after my father died and my mother moved into town. I pulled some strings with my mother to get my friends terms they could afford. But I have found, over the years, that two families are too few to be considered a "neighborhood." Good neighbors, yes. But the critical mass simply isn’t there for anything more.

In addition to these next-door neighbors (who live nearly ½ mile away – isn’t country life wonderful?), Laura and I have three other neighbor families who live a bit closer. We have nothing in common with them philosophically or demographically. We live far enough apart that we can easily ignore each other, so we do.

But during the 90s we all had children who played together, and as a result, we parents interacted a lot more then than we do now. These days, we interact very seldom.

I noticed one interesting thing about the two children of one family, who were considerably older than our son Neil. I noticed that older children can successfully play with a much younger child: it was fascinating watching a 13-year-old play with a 3-year old. But shortly after the onset of puberty, that behavior stopped. As soon as the pubescent child became sexually aware of his/her peers, young children were no longer considered suitable playmates. They became "uncool." This is all no doubt totally obvious, but I had never seen it played out so up close and personal before.

The children of another one of the families were much more problematic. When I saw them sniffing gasoline in my yard one day, I knew they were problem kids. Laura and I figured that maybe treating them in a decent manner, like human beings, would help. But this didn’t have the desired effect, as it turned out.

First, the boy stole my .22 rifle, no doubt because he was Neil’s playmate and had access to our house. The temptation was evidently too much for him to resist. His father discovered the rifle and let me know. Laura and I decided that verbal reprimands and cautionary warnings were enough from us, though the father undoubtedly used a much more physical approach with his son.

But a year later, when these neighbor kids knew we were going to be out of town for the weekend, they broke into our honey house by tearing out the screen and climbing through a window. The only thing missing was a bottle of Everclear (pure grain alcohol) that we used for making propolis tincture. They also broke a window in Neil’s bedroom trying to jimmy it open, killed a number of baby chicks, set part of our pasture on fire playing with gopher gassers, and emptied an entire tube of caulk onto our dog. We called the sheriff’s office, who sent out a crime unit. As it turned out, the boy had stepped on a piece of paper on the counter when he climbed through the window, leaving a perfect shoe print. We already knew who did the crime, so we pointed the deputies in the right direction. The boy’s shoe matched the shoe print perfectly, of course.

We decided to let the criminal justice system play itself out in this case. We noticed right away that we, the victims, were totally ignored by the process. In fact, a victim advocate told us outright, "Don’t expect justice from the criminal justice system." In the end, the kids were given a reprimand because they didn’t have a criminal record, because we hadn’t reported the theft of our rifle.

(The father, an honorable man, paid us for the damage his kids had done.)

I’m saying all this to point out that this neighbor business is not all sweetness and light. I’m sure everybody agrees that neighbors can sometimes be a real pain in the ass, and that in many cases a neutral relationship is as good as it’s ever going to get. There’s a lot more to intentional neighborhood than sheer proximity. Often, the neighbors are simply unsuitable for a closer relationship. But like I said, a severe economic downturn might make it mutually advantageous for neighbors to set their differences aside and work more closely together.

We were a bit closer to one of the three families in our immediate vicinity. Laura and the teenaged daughter became friends, and Laura did some house-sitting for them on several occasions. The neighbors swapped money and use of their pool in exchange for feeding their chickens and horses when they went on vacation. In this case, even though we had little in common with the parents culturally, politically, or on a chemistry level, we managed to have a very decent relationship. It’s not necessary to be friends to be good neighbors.

As it turned out, any interactions between the parents in our unintentional neighborhood totally depended on our kids playing together. As the kids grew up and developed more separate interests, play activity tapered off and eventually stopped, and interactions between the parents became rare.

Today, the father of one of the families still buys honey from us from time to time, and we sometimes have brief conversations with him when he passes our house when he’s out taking his exercise walk. But that’s it. The second family, we talked briefly when there was an auto accident in front of their house a year or so ago, but that’s it. The third family, I had words with the father (we have a surprisingly good relationship, such as it is) when his wolf-dog killed my chickens (as usual, he paid us for the damage), but that’s it. This is fairly typical for an American non-intentional neighborhood out in the country, I suspect.

One interesting fact: when we experienced our Great Flood of ’06, not one of the three families even acknowledged that it had happened. Total denial. I think our status as flood victims made them uncomfortable. Denial of the flood allowed them to deny their indifference to our plight.

With the exception of our neighbors to the north, it’s hard to imagine intentional neighborhood ever happening here with the neighbors we now have, no matter how bad the economy may get. But you never know: maybe some new neighbors will move in and we’ll have a little renaissance right here in Selden Canyon. Time will tell.