Recently a blog discussed the value of barely casual connections in a neighborhood and how recent popular press articles have suggested there's an epidemic of loneliness. You can read it here.
We may still feel that we are "cozy with friends, sustained by family, and flush with Facebook friends," yet still interact in a greater society of both declining civic values and increasing social inequities. As Steve Price noted, there is not a solitary cause or change for these societal developments, but how communities have fewer public spaces, the on-going mobility of segregation by class and race, and the greater desire for private rather than public experiences are certainly powerful influences.
Isolating ourselves to only close friends and family may be a detriment to our personal health and social well-being. If we only relate to those who already think, like, and behave like ourselves, it will become an echo chamber without a broad spectrum of experiences, information, and skills. Certainly there is value in gathering a group of similar-valued ideas and passionate advocates; it is how political and social change often happens. But there is unrecognized power in communicating those ideas and passions into the larger world.
Our culture and society has elevated privacy and control to ultimate goals and desires. Think about all the ways you can control appliances and equipment through a few finger strokes on your smartphone. Yet it is likely when those appliances and equipment fail we are at a loss in knowing who to call or what business even offers repair. If we only let a few family or friends into our private world, what happens when those few are not available? No one likes a "nosy" neighbor, but sometimes a neighbor who knows your usual routine may be the first responder to check in when you deviate from it. No one on Facebook can respond to a fall away from a computer or smartphone.
Do you know your neighbors? One of the assets of our late-nineteenth century formerly streetcar suburban neighborhood is the proximity of our homes to each other, and the ever-present large front porch and the more utilitarian rear entry. The Quaker author Phillip Gulley, in his book Porch Talk bemoans the architectural change that occurred with the suburban revolution: the elimination of the front porch and the development of the back patio. Observant neighbors on front porches can watch the block more effectively, talk to walkers passing by, and notice the ebb and flow and activity in a typical day. You can (and many of our backyards show this) effectively block yourself from public view by using the back patio as your exclusive outdoor hideaway.
But if our encounters with the rest of the world only occurs in the artificial barriers of rooms, cars, and office space, you will never know the neighbors, walkers, and other activities that enhance and quietly build social networks and promote even casual acquaintances. Just the obligatory "Good Morning" when retrieving the morning newspaper, or the "Good afternoon" to a passer by while drawing mail from the front porch mailbox can be an informal connection into the wider neighborhood network.
Beyond housing we need the public square, giving us permission to leave the cozy and comfortable for the neighborly and civic, regardless of class and race. We have received the assets: we actually have two parks and a bonanza of housing stock to encourage front porch parties. Is your smart screen device really that life-giving and meaningful? In a time of disaster and crisis, would you be able to talk to your neighbor first, since your other connections through technology may be unavailable?
The environment is still present in the blocks and homes of Clokey Park. Sit on the front porch one afternoon. Observe the patterns of your neighbors. Learn their first names. Let them learn yours. These weak ties of acquaintance may be helpful when all other connections are unexpectedly unavailable.
Are you willing to interact?