Anyone who travels around America these days can’t help noticing the great advance of suburban sprawl–the bewildering webs of highways with malls at all their intersections, the vast quadrants of land given over to residential and commercial constructions that seem indistinguishable from each other.
To my eyes this growing chunk of America is ugly in its dullness, dull in its ugliness. But never mind aesthetics. You know all those places must possess distinctive characteristics and even beauty beneath their surfaces, because those places do sustain abundant human life. What seems weird about them is how they hinder what most people have in mind when they use the term community–the expression of basic human yearnings for coherence and connectedness. The design of the modern American landscape guarantees that each activity of daily living is a fifteen-minute drive from every other one.
Examples of an older kind of shell for living still exist, of course, in certain towns or pieces of towns and in some urban neighborhoods. Not the theme parks or the planned and gated communities that conform to nostalgic visions of a small-town life that never existed. But places that have evolved and continue to evolve, places that in basic ways resemble the small towns and neighborhoods that many Americans wished to get away from, not all that long ago.
Here are some of the qualities that the term “community” inside such communities does not imply: that all the inhabitants like each other or are likeable, that sad and even terrible events never happen, that everyone agrees on what is best for the place, or that everyone cares about that question. Small-town life still carries special liabilities. If you do all your growing up in the same small locale, you run the risk of retaining all your nicknames and the identities that go with them. By the time you come to adulthood you’re apt to be so well known by the people around you that you can never really be known at all. You feel the power of rumor and gossip, encouraging conformity by punishing transgressions. And sooner or later something you really don’t like is apt to happen very close to home, and when it does, it will seem inescapable. You’ll feel like a modern airplane traveler, jammed in a narrow seat, stuck for company with the people fate has placed beside you, except that you are there for life.
But life in some small places, ones where you can do a lot of essential traveling on foot, offers both time and opportunities for the kind of human intercourse that cuts across the boundaries of profession and social class and, in some instances, even race. The town that I recently wrote about in Home Town (Random House, 1999)–an old New England town called Northampton (population 30,000)–has received many sophisticated newcomers, refugees from larger places, over the last twenty years or so. Now and then one of them would decide to attend a City Council meeting, expecting to be amused by provinciality, and would become enchanted by the essential dignity of proceedings that dealt with issues and problems that were both near and tangible.
One newcomer spoke to me about discovering in this town something he called “the relief of home.” This is the relief that comes from knowing where you can get your car repaired reliably, from understanding local rules and customs and alliances and enmities, from feeling that you know and are known by a significant number of the people around you and that you are a part of something larger than yourself. The relief of home is the comforting illusion of living within order, especially comforting if your own life has a large share of disorder in it.
The relief of home in a place like Northampton also means living in sight of distinctive geographic features, which serve to tell you where you are. And it means history, too. Old buildings, old-functioning downtowns, allow you to imagine a place without yourself in it. They remind you that others have been there before you and that others will probably be there when you’re gone, and in this way a place with a feeling of history suggests that what you do there may actually make a difference. Places that call themselves communities should think hard before building new things, and harder still before demolishing old ones.