Do you know your neighbors?

When I was less than a year old, my family moved to Fremont, a new suburb seven or so miles outside of Syracuse. My house and its neighbors were built on an old apple orchard. Behind us was an old trolley line that had run between Syracuse and Minoa.

For a long time after that, the country still blossomed not far from my house. With other boys of the neighborhood, I used to go exploring. We would walk or ride our bikes over unused farm fields, or we would ride down to the Erie Canal towpath. We played combat in a little forest made up of trees from the old orchard.

On more than one occasion, we were chased out of cornfields by farmers. One farmer started firing his shotgun. When a cop stopped by to ask him, he said, “I was just firing in the air to scare ’em.”

Remnants of the trolley tracks were everywhere. We used to dig up ties from the track. One of our favorite hangouts was a broken-down bridge that had once extended over the trolley line.

Many adults in my suburb had grown up in villages or even cities. As suburbs in their present form were then new, they expected the “community” to have many of the features of village life. The developer told the new homeowners that Fremont would have, among other things, stores, a post office and a fire station. There was talk of a Catholic church to be built in the area.

But few of these projects materialized. There were no stores except a grocery store and drug store, both located in a plaza a mile from my house. There weren’t as  many cars then, but people walked. Many people walked between Fremont and East Syracuse, a neighboring village located about three miles to the west.

After years of practicing law in downtown Syracuse, I can see that a childhood spent in a suburb such as mine was a gift. We were still close to nature. The streets were quiet. The neighbors were friendly, especially in the early years. Children were sheltered and safe.

But by the time I turned 10, I was bored. Summers were long. There was little to do except look at comic books or watch TV. It is almost a universal belief among adolescents and preadolescents in suburbs that life is suspended for them and will not begin again until they are 16 and able to drive.

It seems to them that among the principal duties of their parents is that of chauffeur. The car is the symbol of freedom. The suburb was built on the automobile. The suburb is an artificial organism, just as Erie Boulevard, built through Syracuse over the old Erie Canal, is artificial. Its builders had no plan by which people would walk from one of its myriad stores to another.

Life in the age of technology
Today, the vestiges of rural life surrounding my suburb have all but disappeared. Colorless houses have continued to be built over almost every unused piece of land. We have regretted this demise while we have, each of us, contributed to it.

So programmed are we by the noise and technocomforts of our suburban lives that we have shut out much of the natural world. The Greek philosopher Pythagorus said that the stars in their movement make a heavenly music. But we are so tuned by the noise and  chaos of our daily lives that we fail to hear the cosmic harmony.

Now more than ever before, we shut out the natural world. I spend  considerable time at Green Lakes, located near Fayetteville. When I run or ski through the woods there, I am taken aback by the number of people who use cell phones on their jaunts. They fail to share moments with their dogs or human acquaintances. The sounds of water running or the wind blowing through the trees are lost on them.

That is not all that has been lost. Years ago, my grandparents would spend their summer nights on their front porch talking with their neighbors. Today we barely know our neighbors. As a friend of mine has commented, we have gone from being a nation of front porches to one of back decks.

A need for human interaction
Village settings are not readily available in suburbs, and the art of easy interaction has become all but lost. The village offers us a model by which to organize and reorganize our communities. The suburb has given us a false sense of self-sufficiency. We are, as Aristotle said, political creatures. We need each other.

The village offers us such necessary buildings as churches, schools, restaurants and stores within walking distance. This will become increasingly urgent as our society ages and more citizens become unable to drive. It also becomes necessary with the increased emphasis on health and our need to walk again.

Finally, the village reminds us that we are not alone. We have obligations to each other. It therefore becomes a model upon which political units are built.

Each city is, in many ways, a composite of villages. New York City has myriad neighborhoods, each with its own characteristics. Greenwich Village was originally just that.

Talking with strangers
I now live in Eastwood, an older village that was absorbed into the city of Syracuse. Parts of James Street, the main drag, are run down, but Eastwood still shows many of the signs of the thriving village it was in the 1920s and ’30s. A large number of homes and its side streets have an individuality and comeliness that many recent suburban areas lack.

James Street features stores, restaurants and churches. Perhaps its best- known site is the Palace, a movie theater dating back to 1924. Independent of any movie chain, the Palace is attractive in its reasonable prices and splendid old auditorium, recently refinished.

On a very hot night last summer, my house lost power. I went out to wander the streets in search of the source of the problem. A large number of people were also out on the streets discussing the matter. They were asking strangers and learning that a transformer had blown up, probably due to the heat.

I walked over to watch the transformer, located near the intersection of Plymouth and James. By this time, the fire department and power company were there. A large number of people stood watching and talking.

A huge fire was burning near the top of the pole where the transformer had been. Apparently when the transformer had erupted, it had set a nearby car on fire.

With my curiosity now satisfied, I walked back toward my house. People were still standing together on the streets, excited and talking. By now their conversations had drifted to other topics.

I had not seen such happy nosiness in years, certainly not in the suburbs. It seemed that the people in my new neighborhood had not talked with so many others in a long time.

We still possess the civic instinct.

It waits in us for redevelopment.


A commentary on suburban life by Charles Lupia