Sunday, November 26, 2006


We had our street-based annual Xmas Party today. Like many who live in the suburbs these days we don’t see that much of our neighbors. We are often busy motoring kids around, working nights and so on. To use a bit of jargon our urban lives contain rather little ‘unstructured time’.

Most people of my generation recognize the situation described and nostalgically look back to the better urban lives they claim prevailed in their youth. Most can recall neighbors who regularly just ‘called-in’ or who borrowed cups of sugar as well as gangs of kids who treated the gardens in a street as a common property resource where they played cricket or football. Friendships among kids led to friendships among parents as well.

This nostalgia is selective – in most respects we live much better off these days by being better supplied with public and private goods. But most of us agree there is some sort of loss of community spirit in modern suburbia.

Good community interactions do happen but seem less common and more formalised. Indeed I think that overall families are often more inward-looking. At one extreme a few people have told me they don’t want to get close to their neighbors lest they become a nuisance. More typically though there are standard fears of rejection, changed demographics and commercial intrusion into the management of our leisure. Houses can become capital assets not homes where families live - a view that is fostered by greater job market mobility and to less permanence in social interactions.

Today’s street party was good. It was a mild sunny Melbourne day and the tug-of-war that operated in my driveway (between odd and even house numbers) was won by the odd street numbers (my side) for the first time in several years. Cricket was played on the footpath and we all got to meet seldom-encountered neighbors. The good vibes were pervasive and made it clear that most people want a sense of community as well as a bit of fun. That this community is sometimes lacking suggests a sense of frustration about modern urban life.


conrad said...

It would be interesting to know whether such a change in "neighbourly" behavior is really true. Is there any real data out there? or is it just a false stereotype of past times?

hc said...

Conrad, I don't have any data. And I did point out the ambiguity of the nostalgia data. I think there was a greater sense of community when I grew up though other aspects of life were not as good.

FXH said...

A book I think called "Bowling Alone" or something similar addresses this issue for USA.

I reckon I'm old enough to have noticed a decline in community neighbourly behaviour. We haev had the same house for 25+ years, [although we have moved around in and out of it and Melbourne] and in the old days we knew everyone on the block and people looked out or each other.

Suburb has now gone up market and the 4wd and BMW set can't see any value in getting to know people or participating in community events.

FXH said...

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).