“It’s a what?” I wasn’t hard of hearing in my late 40s; I was just thrown by the new term
“A Gated Community,” my husband announced, articulating slowly for my edification.
“Why?” I asked.
Placed in the heart of 450 acres of undeveloped forest, a gate seemed the height of redundancy. The one I was looking at flanked a cute little fairytale cottage my husband identified as The Guard House. It was attached to…nothing… on each end. Floating freely just beyond the cottage with only beech trees and air for neighbors, it was obvious not even the woodland wildlife would be stopped on either side of it.
“What in heaven’s name is a Gated Community, and why would anyone what to live? … My voice trailed off as I waved my hand at the forest cottage with faux barriers.
“They’re the future”, my husband explained, again with some pride I was trying not to pay attention to. “People owning high-end real estate will want to know who their neighbors are and that their real estate investments are protected.”
“So, at some point in the future it will presumably be important to keep people out of this place in order to call it a community?” I knew my expression was less than accepting. “I don’t like it,” I added, unnecessarily, I realize now. “Reminds me of the entrance to a cemetery. A very well-tended one,” I added in hopes of mitigating the harshness of my statement, “but it’s all so…incongruous…out here in what we called the middle-of-nowhere just a few years ago.”
A few years after that, we built a huge home there on a bluff 180 feet above Peconic Bay with 180 degree views West, South/West of the sunsets turning water, boats and clouds scarlet: all within that Gated Community. I lived there for almost 20 years, but never figured out what that community was meant to be. My husband ran the community board and association for many years before we even built the house, having purchased the land before we’d sold our other house. Wanting to protect his investment in waterfront property, he saw the Community Association as the best way to do that, and so eventually was involved in every decision, financial, practical or legal, that was made; and he knew everybody who bought land within the community as the 35 lots relentlessly developed into the high-end real estate assets he’d envisioned in the beginning.
I never went to even one of the annual meetings of the Association, nor did I get to know many of the other owners much more than to nod to from afar. I wondered if I was becoming anti-social, but decided that since my early efforts to connect the first people who moved into the community were rebuffed, I wouldn’t waste any more effort to connect people who didn’t seem to care…about each other or the developing community itself. If the protection of each individual asset was all that mattered, then this “Community” was actually more of a private club formed to keep others out; something I’d been allergic to for a long time.
I’ve recently sold my real estate asset in that gated community and moved to a small house on a narrow, meandering street in the historic section of an old village. Even though, like most pretty places relatively near big cities, it’s become overly popular with tourists in the summer months, it still retains some of its blue collar underpinnings and looks and feels much as it did when it was the first customs port of the colonial states of America. Without pretension, it has found a way to combine views (attitudinal, not visual) and values (moral, not financial) from other times and cultures, thanks to its early status as a port of entry. And so, much like New Amsterdam, it had no choice but to be inhabited by immigrants from all over the globe. You can still feel that mixture of cultures everywhere, just as you can in New York. That great, big city is nothing but a collection of small neighborhoods, as everyone who’s lived there awhile understands, and those who were born there a long time ago know even better.
I realize I learned what a community should be from my upbringing in New York, and it had nothing to do with gates. Now, suddenly, I find myself in a new house on a new street, and meet a new neighbor every day who stretches out a hand in the most unpremeditated way imaginable saying, ‘welcome to the neighborhood. We’re so glad you came. If there’s anything you need as you get settled in, please just come over and ask.’
I recently read one of David Brooks’ pieces in the NY Times, and found myself reminded of my new neighbors. Written on Aug. 9th, his Op-Ed column is called, “the Great Affluence Fallacy”, and it explores the importance of community through a number of recently published books and articles he discusses at some length. The fact that the current generation of young adults seems to be rejecting the institutional and national values of their predecessors in exchange for neighborhood hospitality rings a familiar bell in my mind.
The point is made that the citizens of the wealthiest countries of the world suffer depression in multiples greater than those of poorer countries, and Brooks notes that while our young would like to have both freedom and community, they are beginning to pay attention to the mentors of all types who preach the need for collaborative skills rather than autonomous accomplishments. Americans tend toward a desire for personal stardom and narcissism, but there’s a reason young classical musicians are paying serious homage to chamber music these days, even when solo careers are a distinct possibility for them.
Brooks mentions the book “The Abundant Community,” by John McKnight and Peter Block. He notes they are clearly “anti-institutional and anti-systems”. He chooses a quote from the book that sums up what I’ve come to happily experience on my new street: “Our institutions can offer only service—not care—for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another”. That’s the pleasantly familiar emotion I’m experiencing in my new community; care, freely given. A caring community is a much better way to protect our most valuable assets: each other.