Rebuilding the “Middle Ring”

2021 and the tenacious staying power of COVID-19 has brought us a totally unique set of societal circumstances and redefined our view of community. Whatever was considered “normal” before, probably no longer exists. How we co-exist with our families, friends, neighbors and business collaborators will be up to our own creating – not dependent on the norms of the past. While many view these times of uncertainty as scary – I look at them as exciting. Whether we like it or not, change has been thrust upon us. We’ve received a free pass to reinvent. It’s in our best interest to own it.

This piece was originally written in 2015. Now is time to update it as its message of connecting with our neighbors is even more relevant today than it originally was. Our ability to embrace this unprecedented time of change will determine what our futures look like. It’s time we evolve from sitting idly by waiting for “the man in the white hat … riding in on the white horse” to save the day – and transport us back to the way things were. “Holding onto Yesterday” was a song from the ’70s, not a life strategy. What our futures look like lie with us, those we know around us and those we may serendipitously happen to encounter. It does not lie with some illusion of government or institution created for the benefit of generations long gone. My journey has opened my eyes to see that. Now the question is; what lies down the road … for all of us?

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I grew up in Minot, North Dakota in the ’60s and ’70s. Minot had a population of about 35,000 (it’s a little more now). More specifically, I grew up in Green Valley. Green Valley is a sub-division of about eighty suburban houses, not unlike most other suburbs built in the ’50s. It was what you would call middle class with a few upper-middle bordering the Mouse River. There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood; next door, across the street and down the block. All of us played in the streets and in each other’s yards. Again, probably not unlike most other suburban neighborhoods of that time.

Everyone in Green Valley pretty much knew each other. In the fall the neighborhood fathers would watch football across the street at Nutter’s; the Vikings vs. the Packers, with libations flowing freely Bobbie Nutter in the kitchen. Both sides wore their respective teams jerseys and stocking hats (remember it’s North Dakota). The kids were normally in the back yard pretending to be Joe Kapp or Bart Starr. And every June the neighborhood held the Green Valley picnic at the ‘vacant lot’ which doubled as a baseball field in the summer when school was out (our version of ‘Sandlot’).

As I grew older and went to high school there was less running around in the streets but the neighborhood was still there. During the times I had parties when my parents weren’t home, the neighbors didn’t call the police – but rather just looked from their kitchen windows to make sure nothing got out of hand. They’d rather have their kids across the street and drinking – than driving the streets and drinking.

When we were kids we knew our neighborhoods. We knew everything, every inch of it. We knew who grew what in their gardens and when was the good time to sneak in and steal carrots. It always seemed to be carrots. I don’t why, but it always was. If something in our neighborhood changed, we knew it. How many of us know our neighborhood now? Not our old neighborhood, but the one we live in now. I suppose you could say that once you get older you don’t have time for those things. But isn’t it still your neighborhood, still where you live? You may not care about your neighbor’s carrots … but shouldn’t you still care about your neighbor?

Will's garage cartoon

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Houses Where We Can See Out To Make Sure Everything Is Alright

Denis Wood wrote a book, actually an atlas, a few years ago about his neighborhood, “Everything Sings.” It’s fascinating. “Everything Sings” is a mapped survey of his century-old, half-square mile neighborhood; Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina. Wood diagrams everything; underground pipes, above ground telephone lines, where the barks of the neighborhood dogs come from. Literally he detailed the anatomy of where he lives. It reminds me of something I would have done when I was ten; a time when everything in my little ‘world’ mattered, a time when my curiosity was unbridled, a time when my neighborhood was my life.

A lot of us grew up like this. Some in better neighborhoods than others. However the one common element is that they were our neighborhoods and we had neighbors. I think a lot of us want our children to grow up in neighborhoods like the ones we grew up in, not in houses where we worry about whether our neighbors can see in. But rather in houses where we can see out to make sure everything is alright.

Tip O’Neil, the Massachusetts political icon famously said “all politics are local”. Well it’s more than just politics. Most things in our lives are local, even with the digital world so prevalent. Isn’t local where we spend the majority of our time? We may we be up on events in Afghanistan, or the Ukraine or the algae contamination in Miami, but our house or apartment and the neighborhood around it is still where we live and where we spend the majority of our time. The convenience store down the street, the dog park we go every Saturday; that’s our community. It’s our little ‘world‘. With COVID and the prevalence of working at home – this is even more the case.

But how much do we really know about our little ‘world’? Maybe we know our neighbors, but maybe we don’t. Do we know them well enough to know when they need help? And if we do … do we know what they need? More than likely, even though we’re physically present: we’re probably not mentally present. In Green Valley, the first line of help was the neighborhood. If someone needed something, everyone always seemed to offer. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case now. Maybe I’m skewed by media coverage, but it seems that many neighbors would rather call the police and file a complaint … than lend a hand.

The French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, theorized that the concept of American township and its extension, the neighborhood, was the reason for the envied American ‘exceptionalism’ of the 1800 and early 1900s. In Europe people resided around common demographic characteristics such as language or ethnicity. America was not so much the case. People of different ‘ways, shapes and kinds’ lived relatively together in close geographic proximity, creating American townships and neighborhoods. While not all agreed with each other politically or socially, they were still neighbors. And when they were needed they were there; the first line of defense against whatever common enemy they all faced.

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Introducing The ‘Middle Ring”

A few years ago Marc Dunkelman wrote an excellent book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, “The Vanishing Neighbor”. In his book he introduces the concept of the ‘Middle Ring’. The ‘Middle Ring’ is what Dunkelman calls our neighborly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media. Unfortunately the ‘middle’ is not holding, collapsing from pressures on both sides. Social media sites have brought our closest contacts closer and expanded our reach to include ‘weak ties’ that we know only through cyberspace. Compound this with the proliferation of political and special-interest segregated cable news outlets and social media groups, we have little time or attention for anyone else, physically or philosophically. And what suffers are our neighborhood acquaintances, our communities and the memories of what they used to stand for.

There’s been much discussion in the last decade about the decay of the American community, as we like to remember it; or at least as Hollywood portrays it. But really it’s the loss of the ‘Middle Ring’ we’re seeing. We still have communities, they’re just not inhabited by “our neighbors“.

It’s the loss of these neighbors who were physically around and could be counted on (often without even asking) that’s creating a social divide in America. In the past, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression. 

We didn’t have to agree with them politically, socially or otherwise, but we knew them and they were still our neighbors … and we could count on them.

With Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. That worked fine for the times, but that reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our ‘Middle Ring’ began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armor, so to say, were beginning to show – even back then.

Now it seems as if we’ve all but lost our ‘Middle Ring’. Maybe not physically. There’s still people who live next door and down the street, but we don’t know them. Maybe we’ve never even met them. We don’t know where they’ve been or where they want to go. And it kind of makes it hard to help them get there.

As a result our neighbors don’t seem to have identities – and neither do our communities. It’s hard to tell one from another. Maybe it’s due to the prevalence of homogenized big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Maybe its the MacDonalds or Starbucks on every corner rather than Joe’s Diner or Martha’s Koffee Klatch. Maybe it’s the gated communities where unless you live in one … you don’t know who or what does. Maybe it’s all of it. Regardless, everywhere kind of seems the same. It’s a little like there’s planned communities everywhere, except they’re not intentionally planned.

Irvine cartoon

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When Did Edward Scissorhands Become Mayor And Who Elected Him?

My daughter, Alex, and I moved to Irvine, California in 1992, when she was four years old. Irvine is one of the nation’s first truly planned communities. It was created out of acres and acres of oranges groves by the Irvine family (thus Orange County). I remember driving around the city looking for an apartment and Alex said to me;

“Dad, you know that movie with the guy that had scissors for hands? This kind of looks like that.”

My four-year old daughter was comparing our future home with “Edward Scissorhands” and Tim Burton surrealism. And the scary thing was, she was right. And now there’s even more “Irvines” than before.

When we lose the individuality of our community with all its nooks, crannies – all the things that make it different from other places … we lose a little of our own individuality as well. It means less to say you’re from ‘somewhere’ if that ‘somewhere’ doesn’t really have any identifying qualities to it.

Isn’t it time take back our communities? But first we need to take back our neighborhoods and rebuild our ‘Middle Ring‘. To do that we need to get to know what’s going on around us; and then ‘piece by piece’ we’ll regain ownership of our physical surroundings and with that we’ll regain ownership of ourselves and who we are.

Maybe then we’ll notice the basketball hoops on the school playground that don’t have nets on them. Maybe then we’ll do something about it, rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Maybe then we’ll notice that vacant lot on the way to work, you know the one that always seems to be filled with the trash – the one we’d rather not look at. Well maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. And maybe next Saturday morning we’ll grab our kids and their friends, and do something about it.

Maybe we’ll notice if we leave the house for work a few minutes earlier we can skip our ‘same as every other day’ Starbucks stop, and try out the local coffee shop. You know, the one with the chalkboard in front with daily specials on it – that we think about stopping at  … but never do. Remember it was the local cafe or coffee shop that was always that place where you could stop to find out “what was happening”. Even though “what was happening” didn’t seem all that important … it was still glue that held together the ‘Middle Ring’.

Maybe we’ll think about that elderly woman who lives down the street and who lives alone. Or at least we think she still lives there. But since we don’t pay attention, we really don’t know. And instead we’ll walk over and see how she’s doing. And better yet, we’ll take one of our daughters with us (you know that one that helped with the vacant lot).

The ‘Middle Ring’ isn’t just about geography, it’s about generations and connecting them to maintain the fabric of our communities – ensuring that they’re still there for our sons and daughters in the future.

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An Act Of Agency And Self-Efficacy

We can’t assume government or any other institution is going to do anything to bring back our communities and our neighborhood relationships. They’re not concerning themselves with our ‘Middle Ring’. Regardless which party is in office, the well-being of the people in our community isn’t front and center. They don’t care if the flowers on the sidewalk by Joe’s Diner are watered or even if there’s any flowers there at all. And they don’t really care about the trash in the lot next to the abandoned house, nor the house.

I’m not proposing we step back into the past and relive the supposed ‘good ole days‘. But that doesn’t mean we have to totally discard them either though. The great thing about hindsight, is that we can learn. What if we take the good parts of ‘yesterday’ and synthesize them with today. What if we created a new and improved version of the ‘Middle Ring’, one synergized with today’s technology and social media. With COVID I know this isn’t going to be easy. With my history of blood cancer and being plagued with a compromised immune system – I know this as well as anyone. Those who are probably most inclined to read this post and act on it under normal situations, are also those who are taking most seriously COVID and the physical restrictions it imposes on us. Instead, it’s easier just to retreat into our online communities, tweet or post something on Facebook. Our physical spaces present physical risks. This is the dilemma. That said, we still have to try to break free and not ignore our neighborhoods and those who inhabit them. It doesn’t have to be something huge and all encompassing though.

We just have to start. And maybe the place to start is with that basketball net.

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