Friday, July 11

"There goes the neighborhood!"

On my last day in Missoula, while sipping a coffee at Bernice's, I skimmed a letter to the editor in the Missoulian. Apparently, a resident of the Rattlesnake neighborhood felt that the "huge" expansion (actually not so big) of the Clark Fork school rendered his neighborhood utterly uninhabitable, due to the increased traffic and "screaming kids." The school offered him help in moving expenses, but he would have none of it. It made me chuckle, but the fact that these reactions happen every day in every town across our hyper-privatized nation is much less funny.

Sometimes the concerns are a little more thorny. Concurrently, Missoula had also been engaging in its latest installment of homeless services squabbles. Predictably, residents of the North Side objected to the placement of a day-center that could jeopardize the health and safety of their neighborhood. Jay at 4 & 20 kicked off a highly fruitful conversation about this last week. The indigent have to be served somewhere, most of us agree. The dilemma over how to distribute the burden justly across a city is a very difficult one.

I was thinking about these local debates as I read a very insightful series of posts by Kaid Benfield, a seasoned environmental activist out of D.C. (I found him through Smart Growth Around America). He wonders why he sees so much more defensiveness among neighbors now than he did when he was younger. Institutions such as schools, churches, and charitable organizations used to be considered community assets, but now they are almost always perceived as threats to the neighborhood.

He speculates on some reasons for this reason:

First, air conditioning.

"I’m serious. It makes more people spend more time indoors than we did, say, 50 years ago, which means less interaction. How many people sit on their front porches in the evenings now, if they even have them, in wealthy neighborhoods?"

Second, our addiction to automobiles cuts our life experience up into privatized pieces.

"Some people, particularly in low-density suburbs, “tend to interact with their neighbors mainly through their windshields.”

I would add that automobiles, by virtue of their very size, do present a zero-sum game that pits people against each other. Every car on the road is less room for another one. Traffic really does become more of a viable concern than it would if people were content to sometime walk places.

Third, a decline in localized social organizations.

"In my youth, neighbors were more accepting, I believe, because they were usually among those who attended the nearby churches and schools, or were friends with people who did. Today, given the decline in identification with these institutions, and decline in neighborhood social ties, neighbors see the local churches and schools not as part of their own kind but as other people, at best representative of a minority in the neighborhood. They are much less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt."

The fourth point is a bit touchy, but I think accurate.

"We in the environmental movement have played a role. For good reasons, beginning in the 1970s we created a system of laws and procedures, and a culture, that over time has made it relatively easy to challenge proposed development of all types, and to defeat proposals or delay them until proponents give up. People now consider it their right to fight proposed development wherever and whenever it occurs, and it has become an expectation in many places."

The fact of the matter is that environmental stewardship should be as much about saying "yes" to good development as it is about saying "no" to bad development. I think many people are realizing this.

Whatever the cause, Benfield sees this phenomenon as more than a simple annoyance.

"This bothers me because, if we are experiencing hostility between neighbors and even our most basic community institutions, the viability of multi-functional, sustainable neighborhoods and cities is called into question."

I would have to agree.


Zed said...

There might also be another simple explanation - people acting less neighborly towards one another.

Used to be we would chat with our neighbors (over the fence, across the kitchen table, at the local diner, etc.) It was once important for us to meet face-to-face, keep up with the happenings in our neighborhood, and let one another know what was going on.

Now, it seems to be we find out about things in the media or in the courtroom.

Take Scott Cooney , for instance, one of Missoula's biggest developers (such as the “highly contentious” Duncan Meadows subdivision, and a possible financial backer for saving the former Lincoln School from development).

Scott, who lives behind a gated drive at the end of a dead-end street alongside Rattlesnake Creek, has just installed cameras to spy on the public as they cross the bridge near Pineview Park. According to Michael Moore in the Missoulian, Cooney is also threatening to put up a big
"wooden fence of the sort that borders the Dennis Washington property just upstream from Cooney's"

Perhaps, the first step is for all of us to practice neighborliness in all we do, and others might treat us neighborly in return?

Unknown said...

Hi. I just discovered this blog and was super-excited to find something on urban planning with a Missoula and Montana perspective.

However, you mentioned it's your last day in Missoula. Does that mean you're moving? Am I a day late and a dollar short?