For the past several weeks my sweetie has been reading aloud to her granddaughter from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” while I eavesdrop from my chair in front of my computer screen. The life described in the book, small town Alabama in the thirties, is predictably full of racism and ignorance and rife with the sort of “neighborliness” we tend to glorify in our re-write of the American past.
Neighbors know and greet each other, rush to help when there is a fire, help each other quietly or through church affiliates when there is a need and keep each other’s secrets when appropriate. Everyone knew everyone else. Idyllic seeming until one realizes that to kill a mockingbird is considered a sin but to falsely accuse a black man of rape is understandable within that town’s mindset.
The small town aspects of life keep coming into my mind as I walk around Alameda and look at its single family architecture and marvel at how unconnected are the lives we lead from those of our neighbors. After five years on my block I can only claim to “know” three of my neighbors. Past the houses directly next to us lies uncharted territory inhabited by unknown people.
I am not complaining. Modern life is atomized and our neighbors are often people on the internet in groups we also belong to. Alameda Peeps is a neighborhood and much more interaction goes on there and on other internet forums than ever takes place in my physical neighborhood. It does seem to be a fact that due to the greater population density of poor neighborhoods people there get to know each other directly whether they want to or not.
Social life has changed dramatically now that we no longer live in primarily tribal groups and when our connections to others are carried out over long distances. There was good reason to leave the small towns of our past with their small mindedness and resistance to change but it was a leap from the frying pan directly into the flames.
Alameda does offer a balance, however. Within town we have many friends scattered across the city who are our real neighbors. They are friends with whom we share our lives, often our meals, and with whom we like to (figuratively) chat with over the fence. Neighbors help each other when we can, act as trusted sounding boards for our ideas and can be counted on to be supportive in times of stress. The connections between neighbors are the building blocks of connections that weave throughout the city.
Today the backyard fence is electronic and friends may tweet or email or IM or whatever new thing is out and hopefully that will prove to be an improvement in some ways. The charm of Alameda is that we get a lot of face time with our “neighbors” scattered as they may be through the city, and that makes Alameda more comfortable and, really, more livable.