As I watched them garner laughs and affectionate looks from their “audience,” I couldn’t help but think of how lucky I’ve been the last few years to live in neighborhoods where this is far from a rare occurrence. In our previous neighborhood in Alabama, we had neighborhood parties on every holiday and any other occasion for which we could make an excuse. When we moved to Virginia last Spring, most of our neighbors (I can think of seven homes off hand) introduced themselves. I talk with most of the women every now and then and a couple of them are on my kid’s emergency contacts at school—and one of them has become a particularly good friend who I see most days during the week.
These experiences stand in stark contrast to the other places I’ve lived during most of my adult life. The suburbs aren’t the best places to experience community. I’ve had some long, lamenting conversations with friends about this phenomenon as we discussed why community is so rare in America. Recently, I was reminded of these conversations by a post on Peter Chattaway’s blog, where he quotes a rather long slice from another post by Patrick Deneen who provides a rather “contrarian” interpretation of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life—in particular how George's “Baily Park” is actually not the paradise it’s made out to be:
. . . His efforts are portrayed as nothing less than noble: he creates “Bailey Park,” a modern subdivision of single-family houses, thus allowing hundreds of citizens of Bedford Falls to escape the greedy and malignant clutches of Mr. Potter, who gouges these families in the inferior rental slums of “Pottersville.” George’s efforts are portrayed as altogether praiseworthy, and it is right to side with him against the brutal and heartless greed of Potter. However, such sympathies serve also to obscure the nature of Bailey’s activities, and their ultimate consequences. In particular, it is worth observing the nature of “Bailey Park,” not merely by contrast to “Pottersville” – in comparison to which it is clearly superior – but also in contrast to downtown Bedford Falls, where it may not compare as favorably by some estimations. . . .Most of my adult life, my experience has been a lot like that—a “private collection of households” with “little else in common.”
The patio – successor to the front porch – embodies as many implicit assumptions about how life is to be led as the porch. Thomas notes the move from urban centers into suburban enclaves in the years following World War II led to the creation of “bedroom communities” in which one did not know one’s neighbors and where frequent turn-over made such stable community relationships unlikely, where privacy and safety were dual concerns leading to the creation of the “patio” space behind the house, most often at the expense of a porch in the front. As Thomas contrasts the two, "the patio is an extension of the house, but far less public than the porch. It was easy to greet a stranger from the porch but exceedingly difficult to do so from the backyard patio…. The old cliché says, ‘A man’s home is his castle. If this be true, the nineteenth-century porch was a drawbridge across which many passed in their daily lives. The modern patio is in many ways a closed courtyard that suggests that the king and his family are tired of the world and seek only the companionship for their immediate family or peers."Bailey Park is not simply a community that will grow to have a similar form of life and communal interaction as Bedford Falls; instead, George Bailey’s grand social experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.
So, what made the difference over the last few years? Well, I’m a stay-at-home mom now (which keeps me in the neighborhood more), we have kids (a natural impetus to meet-the-other-neighbors-who-have-kids), and I’m walking more intentionally with God and getting better at “paying attention.” But one thing regarding the Alabama and Virginia neighborhoods stands out in particular: both neighborhoods are cul-de-sacs and areas where fences are rare.
I’m beginning to believe the very layout of cul-de-sacs is more conducive to forming relationships. A cul-de-sac is shaped like an open circle with a neck leading into and out from it, with 10 to 12 homes along the neck and ‘sac itself. The neck is narrower than thru-way streets, making it easier to get to know your neighbors across the street. The houses at the bottom of the ‘sac all face towards the center or out towards the neck, providing opportunities for people in the ‘sac itself as well as those along the neck to see, talk to and get to know each other. You see the same people, the same cars, the same dogs and cats and the same kids everyday. In addition, the lack of fences provides similar opportunities when you sit on your back deck or patio. Of course, you can choose not to interact (and some do), but the opportunities are more than abundant.
As I mull all this over, I’m wondering if the cul-de-sac is another image we could use to think about simple structures that facilitate fellowship and community among God’s people (ie, the “church”). A cul-de-sac is a naturally small collection of people that provides opportunities for folks to get to know each other and form relationships. But it’s not a “closed” circle—rather it is open, a smaller community facing towards each other but also outward, connected to and facing towards the rest of the community around it.
Is this a way to think of God’s people? Like interconnected collections of smaller groups who minimize our fences, narrow the space between us and maximize our opportunities to form as-we-go and everyday intertwined relationships--but then use those connections to face outward, face towards and connect with the rest of our communities and neighborhoods, inviting others into and providing places where others can also live and grow, multiplying into other similar groups as we go and live within God’s Kingdom? A kind of organic and proliferating collection of Kingdom-living cul-de-sacs?
No, it's not a perfect image. And it goes against my grain to think of the suburbs as something Kingdom-like (too many lingering images of Lewis' Great Divorce, I think). But then, I'm just thinking.
(Image: Google map image of cul-de-sacs)