"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Snow And The Decline Of Civility

In neighborhoods throughout the Northeast a disturbing sign of a lack of civility shows itself after every snowstorm.  In many residential neighborhoods of Washington, DC, access to Metro or buses is difficult and service often spotty.  Shoveling a car out quickly returns the mobility and freedom to which all have become accustomed.  Digging out requires hours of work, but it is always what residents do first. 

In recent years residents have begun staking out their territory by placing lawn chairs, tricycles, and trash cans in parking spots they have shoveled.  In times past no one ever gave a thought to what would have been considered unnecessarily proprietary and an insult to those living nearby.  Not only did everyone respect the unwritten rule of ‘reserved’ street parking, but the idea that a neighbor would willingly and deliberately park his car in the space another had worked so hard to clear was unconscionable.


Not only that, but no one but residents and the occasional guest or plumber ever park in these neighborhoods.  Baby carriages, sleds, and dust bins arrayed in newly-cleared parking spots send only one message: “I don’t trust you.”

How did this rapid change occur?  A recent non-representative sampling of neighborhood residents revealed that no one had ever been the victim of space theft.  Those who staked out their territory did so because “It might happen”. 

More and more people follow this example.  Those who protect their perimeters must know something, they reason, and after the next snowstorm deploy their own toys and  lawn furniture. 
Each and every one of these defiantly defended parking spots is an angry, offensive gesture which immediately brands the neighbor as mean-spirited and suspicious if not dangerous.   There is nothing neutral or reasonable about the act.  It cannot be shrugged off as just another unfortunate aspect of urban life.   Not only does it blatantly characterize the homeowner as someone to avoid, it helps to unravel the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Not all blocks in a neighborhood are the same; and some are free from staked-out spots.  These are the ones with block parties, collective gutter cleanings, child-watch volunteers, and across-the-fence chatting.   Others have a high percentage of protected spaces.  Did the luck of the real estate draw deal them a bad hand?  More bad apples in the barrel than randomness would predict?  Or are these residents more jumpy than most, more vulnerable to social infection, or earlier victims of crime?

Whatever the reasons, the pylons, porch chairs, and sleds are as divisive, dismissive of the social contract, and disrespectful of others as any other possible gesture or action.

One could make a lot more out of this phenomenon – the result of individualism, hyper-competitiveness, K Street Type A personalities who can’t leave their aggression at work; horizontal apartment living (a street of single family homes is no more than housing units laid out along a street instead of in condominium high-rises) where proximity breeds privacy; a conflation of urban fears (abductions, child abuse, crime) and wariness about the invasion of sanctuary.

Perhaps it is proprietary jealousy  Washington residential parking is plentiful; and parking in front of one’s house is natural, easy, and expected. Parking in any other spaces, while legal, acceptable, and non-intrusive, has been the source of vileness, anger, and legendary retribution.  The in-front parking spot has become an extension of the home and the yard and defended as such.

It could be any or all of the above.  Upper Northwest Washington is definitely not Grover’s Corners or Main Street.  Everyone is concerned about one kind of invasion or another – disaffected youths from Southeast, abuse of height limits, encroaching commercial corridors, speeders, and group houses.   Yet despite the image of a transitory, rootless Washington that changes population every four years, most neighborhoods have cohesion, community enterprise, and above all respect.  

Part of this spirit is due to self-interest.  Arguments about fences, lawns, rowdy children, and parties are to be avoided at all cost; and if everyone plays by the same rules, all are better off.
Another part is due to social and cultural homogeneity for which money is a good proxy.  If you have the money to build here, then you must be like us. Those who are not quickly learn the rules of the game and comply.  Communities are like amoebas who absorb the rough bits and spread out evenly; and they are Ugly Duckling vigilantes.  Together residential communities manage to retain the character and their civility.

Which is why this increasing erosion of the community fabric is so unsettling and insulting.  No pleasant over-the-fence chat, no hot dogs and beer at the block party, no friendly wave can possibly mute the aggressive shout of the toy-littered parking space – “I don’t trust you”.

Suburban-like neighborhoods like those in Upper Northwest Washington can never achieve the close social integration than those of small towns or even center-city neighborhoods.  Thanks to busy schedules the variety of retail offerings available, even next-door neighbors in Upper Northwest see each other only occasionally.

In the small town of New Brighton, however, everyone who lived in the West End shopped at Brown’s market, got their hair cut at Vic’s or styled at Gloria’s, went to the same neighborhood schools, played on the same playgrounds, and went to the same library.  They knew each other far better than anyone in Tenleytown or Cleveland Park now can.

Yet one would have thought that the similarity of educational, social, and economic backgrounds, social maturity, and enlightened self-interest would be strong enough to prevent the aggressively anti-social attitudes displayed in post-snowstorm Washington.

There are a number of older residents of a nearby neighborhood – one as traditional as any in Upper Northwest but whose social fabric is beginning to fray – who have made plans to leave.  None of them point to the snowstorms of 2010 and 2016 or to the alarming increase in robberies on Wisconsin Avenue or to the increasing traffic congestion even on residential streets; but all say, “It’s time.”

What is surprising is that many of these longtime Northwest residents who for better or worse have belonged to neighborhood communities, are opting out for a new and far more isolated life. 

“Peace and quiet”, said one resident about to move to the Northern Neck of the Chesapeake Bay.  It wasn’t simply the lapping waters of the Carter’s Creek or the seabirds flying in from the Atlantic or the farmlands not far from Irvington.  Not that kind of peace and quiet.  “No more noisy neighbors”, he said, referring to the family who had just staked out après-snow parking place.  “I can do without them.”


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