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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Neighborhood (Sept. 22, 2011)


What does that word evoke for you?

Yesterday I found myself in a part of town I like, one filled with older houses and trees and a sense of community, and I pondered the concept of neighborhood. Sometimes, a neighborhood evolves not as a function of city planning but out of a hard-to-pinpoint, slow-developing something. I’m curious about what influences a neighborhood’s character. What is the connection between an area’s past and its current personality?

These days, planned communities are common. They have a cohesive feel, and oftentimes, Homes Owners’ Association rules and fees. The similarities among the houses and the landscaping contribute to that unified look. It does feel like a neighborhood, a collection of houses that goes together. On the other hand, individuality is limited by rules about which color your house can be, and whether you can drape towels over the balconies (I’ve heard this is a big no-no!).

But neighborhood goes far beyond how the surrounding buildings look. Is the neighborhood you choose to call home an extension of self, a reflection of who you are, or for some, who you want to become?

I felt a little nerdy checking the dictionary’s definition of “neighborhood,” but I often wonder if my interpretation of an idea matches its literal definition, or whether my feelings about a word have taken on a life of their own. Definitions include “region near” and “a section lived in by neighbors and usually having distinguishing characteristics.” Another source acknowledged two aspects of the word, its “specific geographic area (as well as its)…set of social networks.”

The very fact that the word includes “neighbor” means something, too. Yes, a neighbor is someone who lives near you. But the terms “neighborhood” seems to have an affectionate undertone. It implies a connection to the place, a sense of belonging.

This leads me to ponder further. Do we want to live near people we think are like us? For some, yes, although others seek diversity in where they want to live. When I was twenty-three I moved to a more urban neighborhood and I loved how unpretentious it was. There were laundromats on the corners, not fancy car dealerships. There was a higher crime rate but I felt safe and never had trouble there.

For the last eight years I’ve lived in an area of rather modest, mostly 1-story homes. There are things I like about my neighborhood as well as a few things I dislike, but the pros outweigh the cons. I like that it’s not pretentious. People are hard-working. Most of my neighbors cut their own grass and wash their own cars by choice. They aren’t too self-important to hang their own holiday lights. They lend things to neighbors. They meet at the park to talk with other parents or dog-owners. It’s not a place where your nearest neighbors (if you even know them) are far away. This isn’t an area where a team of gardeners manicures your acres, servants walk your dogs, and you lounge around managing your stock portfolio. This neighborhood is anchored in the real world. It’s a place where people care about their houses, do certain home repair themselves, plant their own gardens and then share tomatoes with their neighbors. People meet in the street and chit-chat. We make friends at nearby garage sales, and buy drinks from kids’ lemonade stands. I’m comfortable here and that’s important to me. Maybe some of my neighbors aren’t as fond of this area as I am. Maybe they aren’t here by choice. But there are those of us who love the normalcy, the lack of pretention. We are neither in competition with the Joneses nor are we afraid of who lives nearby. We are part of something. We care about the area. We want safety without showiness. For me, a down-to-earth neighborhood is not a consolation prize. It is the reward.

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