This also leads me across the Atlantic to think of C.S. Lewis’ s statement about the inherently anti-democratic element of community and, especially, friendship. “It is easy to see why Authority frowns on Friendship,” he wrote. “Every real Friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion.”
This, I believe, is the difference between a democracy and a republic. Groups threaten democracy’s general well, while associations leaven the republic’s common good.
But, as I argued in Baltimore several years ago, the idea of a “front porch republic” where neighbors talked to neighbors repulsed me. Were I forced to sit on my porch and stare at my neighbors, I would do so only in my rocking chair and holding some kind of projectile weapon on my lap.
In part, admittedly, I was just having fun while speaking on the panel, and I enjoyed the shocked looks I received. I’m not, quite frankly, free of being mischievous. But, in large part, I was serious as well. My experience over the past two decades has taught me that communities generally seek their own power their own interest at the expense of the members of that community.
The Intense Patriotism of a Young Man
This wasn’t always the case for me. Whatever difficulties I experienced in my childhood home and domestic life (and they were, at times, deadly (no exaggeration) serious), I absolutely loved growing up in Kansas. While in college and graduate school, my friends would rightly tease me about my patriotism toward the state. It’s true. If I ever held a patriotism toward an abstraction, it was certainly to Kansas. From decorating my walls with pictures and flags to celebrating “Kansas Day” (January 29) with parties, I was a one-man PR team.
Growing up in the small city of Hutchinson, located in south-central Kansas, I encountered so many amazing persons, so many great ideas, and so many wonderful places to explore that I feel a bit overwhelmed just thinking about any of it and trying to categorize it. Nostalgia clouds my memories at age 46, to be sure. But, I think it’s the sheer amount of good memories that overwhelm me, tangling and fusing together in intricate patterns, causing wheels to spin within wheels. Personal memory is always like this, isn’t it? We long for the past to have meaning, and we long to know our place in such a place.
My best memories, though, come from exploring the city, its neighborhoods, its countryside (lots and lots of this), and its obscure corners. This was back in the day when parents allowed their kids to leave after breakfast as long as they came home sometime before dinner and then out again as long as they made it back by bedtime. These were free and open days, days of safety and discovery. They usually began with dawn and went well beyond the magic of the emerging fireflies.
A relatively wealthy town, Hutch (the name everyone uses) possesses an abundance of taste and elegance as well as the ability to preserve much of the past. The public library was outstanding, the parks were well maintained (though sometimes the sight of grotesque crimes), and the school system pretty good for its day.
Neighbors were as free to reprimand, scold, and punish as were parents. No one balked at this. It was simply expected. Where ever kids went—generally free to run wild—so did the authority of the neighbor. And, of course, the adults talked with one another frequently. If I could’ve gotten away with much, I wouldn’t have been able to do so for very long.
There were privileges with this as well. If I had to go to the restroom, or even if I was hungry or thirsty, every neighborhood home was welcoming as well. My favorite neighbors, Jack and Theo Clouse, lived across the street. Never able to have children, but striking it wealthy when Dillon’s Food Stores went public (every employee was given shares; many millionaires were made of ordinary clerks very, very quickly in Hutch), the Clouses watched over me. Sometimes, they watched me like a hawk, and my friends came to treat Theo, in particular, with mystic awe. She seemed to be everywhere and to know everything. Shyness eluded this towering figure.
But, she also took care of me whenever necessary. If something happened at my home, my mom would just send me over to the Clouses. As far as I know, Jack and Theo loved it. They spoiled me mercilessly, and we played lots and lots of cards. Jack was also one of the best read persons I’d ever met. We shared similar political views, and he and I argued and talked for hours and hours.
It was true community.
I also had some of the best friends imaginable, and we did everything to discover every nook and cranny of Hutch. We knew ever alley, every false store front, every historical marker (including one to William Howard Taft and one to Warren G. Harding), and every county road. In particular, Ron (my high school debate colleague) and Joel (a friend since first grade), spent almost all of our free time checking out everything under the sun. At one point, there probably was not a spot of any importance—no matter how trivial—throughout Reno County, Kansas, we did not know. We knew every farm, every public work, every abandoned building, and every road and corner.
We also behaved in a typically goofy high school fashion. One of my finest memories is wearing the local radio station(where I worked)’s costume, Chicken Man, standing in the back of Ron’s yellow Toyota truck, driving through town as he blasted the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My love was not just a love for friendships and for neighbors, it was also the love of place and soil. Here, in Kansas, lots and lots of eccentrics made up one very interesting community. The very hard-working individualism of the people, though, did not lead to isolation, but to harmony.
The New Urbanism of Longmont, Colorado
For the first time in my adult life, I think I’ve finally found real community and a real neighborhood.
[In this discussion, I exclude any specific comments about where I’ve been living, Hillsdale, Michigan, except to state that neither my wife nor I have ever fully understood the local culture of that area. It has, through no fault of any person there, remained alien to us. I explicitly exclude the college, which, of course, is a deeply-rooted community in time and place. I’m referring only to the larger town and county of Hillsdale. There are extraordinary institutions and friends there, but these seem isolated and quite separated from the whole.]
Sitting under the shadow of Long’s Peak, only a short drive from Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, Longmont is a city of nearly 86,000 souls. Somewhat depressed economically in the 1990s, the city embarked on a bold experiment embracing the so-called “New Urbanism.” It was an attempt—successful, I need to add—to create neighborhoods that promoted community formation. Walking paths flow throughout the city as do green spaces. Porches appear on the fronts and the sides of houses, with garages facing back alleys.
I should state upfront that the culture here in Longmont feels very, very familiar to me. It feels much like an updated version of what I experienced in Hutchinson. The ethnic and religious makeup is similar, as are the attitudes of the residents of Longmont. So, take this analysis as a bit of “coming home.”
Regardless of what bias I bring to the topic, I can state the following objectively. The New Urbanism project worked here, reviving the economy as well as drawing numerous new citizens to the city.
The town is free of litter, the residents are outgoing and confident, and their appearance—while not atypically casual for the West—is clean and respectful. Wildlife—especially birds—thrive in the green spaces. In particular, though, one could not fail to notice children and families everywhere. And, the children run relatively free, especially in the green spaces. On our second night here, several kids knocked on the front door. When we answered it, they asked with great energy and eagerness if we had any kids. Much to their glee, we answered, “we have six.” “Can they come out and play?” And, they did, happily and for a long time and have almost every day since we’ve arrived.
This is a paradise for family life.
Again, I must restate, I’ve never felt so much a part of community in my adult life as I do here. I think I finally understand what the communitarians have been arguing for some time.