John Wayne is the Duke. Elvis is the King.

John Wayne's Holster: The Front Porch is Gone
John Wayne's Holster
Visit my main blog at Monkey Wrench Revival. Visit my birdwatching blog at The Birding Nerd.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Front Porch is Gone

Its springtime! Or nearly so. Birds have begun their annual migration - returning to their summer nesting sites. Hoping to catch some of my feathered friends on their way home, I went out bird watching. We recently had quite a bit of rain which helped to accelerate the melting of the snow. As a result, there is lots of water on the ground. Streams are overflowing, fields and meadows are temporarily masquerading as ponds. All in all, it makes for attractive stop-over points for birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds, on their way through town.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of some migrating shorebirds, I drove through the Elk’s Club – the local country club - to get a closer look at the banks of Spring Creek. Unfortunately, luck was not with me that day. No shorebirds. Oh well…maybe next time.

Upon exiting the country club, I saw a relatively new development on the other side of Rt. 45. I decided to take a drive through and look around. The homes were HUGE, each having four or five bedrooms, and a similar number of baths. The homes were each garnished with cable TV, central air, finished basements, Jacuzzis, and natural gas fireplaces on each floor. Many even came with in-ground swimming pools in the back yard.

In all, there were about 20 or so houses, each on a lot that I estimated to be about two acres. As I was looking around, it struck me that there seemed to be something wrong or unnatural about this neighborhood. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what was awry. Then it dawned on me. The houses had no front porches. And I didn’t see any people walking around. Even more striking was the fact that there were virtually no trees, other than a few carelessly scattered saplings left by a landscaper. The houses looked really far apart and isolated.

Over the next few days, I happened by several new developments in the State College area. Although each new development had its own unique features, they were all more or less the same - big houses with tons of amenities, and no people walking around. And no front porches either. To be fair, some did have back decks, but those decks were fenced in and often were surrounded by some sort of trellis work and nifty landscaping to conceal their presence and to minimize the chances that one occupying the deck would have to interact with another person.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that this sort of self-imposed isolation is really the norm, rather than the exception. It seems that people nowadays are so caught up in their own lives and their own entertainment that they have lost touch with others. There is no sense of community.

My neighborhood - if that be the correct term - is no different. I live on a cul-de-sac with only about eight houses. I don’t even know the names of half of my neighbors. I have even bumped into some of them downtown and did not recognize them until my kids pointed them out to me. This is quite different from the way I grew up. As a child in the 70’s, I lived in Yeadon, a suburb of Philadelphia. We lived in a street of twin homes, with about 40 or so residences on our street. It is no exaggeration to say that I knew the names of virtually everyone who lived there. I even knew most of the people living on the adjacent streets, as well as streets clear across town where my friends or family lived. And everyone had a front porch. And they used them!

The best part about my childhood neighborhood was that people talked. Sure, sometimes it was gossip, and other times it was just shooting the breeze, but most times it was about life and families. We all knew each other intimately and cared about each other. We drank coffee together. We celebrated weddings together. We had block parties on the 4th of July when we closed the street, dragged out the grills (the old charcoal kind) and partied all day (and sometimes all night). We also were there to support each other when things were not so good. We helped neighbors mourn at funerals and supported them in their aftermath. We provided a shoulder to cry on when relationships went south. We lent financial support when people hit hard times.

Today, these kind of relationship do still exist, but they are few and far between. In most cases, the neighborhoods these days are not organic or home-grown. Most of the people living in my neighborhood, including me, were not born here, or even anywhere close by for that matter. We all came to Happy Valley from somewhere else - typically for a job. And many will pick-up and leave should a better job prospect present itself. When we retire, we will probably move out again and find someplace else to live where we don’t know anybody. After all, who needs people when we have all these fancy techno-gagdets around to distract us. Gadgets like computers, big screen TVs with 200 channels, DVD players, iPods, hot tubs, air conditioning, etc. We can order out for dinner. We can hire a landscaper to cut our grass. There is no need to go outside. We are self-isolating. Rather than building relationships, most people are more likely to have a response similar to one of these examples:

Who has time to go to Joe-what’s-his-names funeral? I never liked the bastard anyway. Besides, I have to go to work on Tuesday.

or

No, I am not going to the Jackson’s party. That dude is weird. He never says hi.


People seem content with the idea of not having to build relationships with their neighbors. And they seem equally pleased at not having to live up to the responsibilities that go with such relationships.

This is a tragedy in the making. The disintegration of community has led to many problems in our culture, such as loneliness and depression. Although we have more stuff to distract us, and more gadgets to make our lives easier, we are becoming more and more unhappy and discontented. Even worse, we are becoming disconnected from life. Divorce rates are high. Substance abuse is becoming commonplace. Our lack of respect toward each other is becoming acceptable. Rather than work our differences out, we fight or litigate. Our kids see us and they fight too. And they shoot each other and sexually assault each other. We pollute our environment like pigeons fouling their own nest. No one seems to like it, but we accept it as inevitable. Our culture is on the decline, as is our nation. If we don’t right the ship quickly, it will be dashed to bits on the rocks.

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