This week’s guest post is written by Thomas Turner, who blogs at Everyday Liturgy and serves as an editor at GENERATE magazine. He shares about the difficulties of building community in the suburbs of New Jersey.
“Community” is a word associated with the urban or rural. It’s a necessity for rural folk who must rely on each other for services that are not readily available, and it’s a fact of life for people in urban areas who are forced by proximity to relate to each other on some level. Community in the suburbs is far more nebulous. In a world that has been created to get rid of neighborly reliance and neighborly proximity, the suburbs are a hard place to build meaningful community.
It’s hard, but not impossible. And in a way, it’s easier than we think. It just takes some effort, elbow grease, and a knitting together of resources and people to form a web of proximity and reliance.
It took us three years to be accepted into our suburban community. We were not only the new kids on the block, we were literally the kids on the block―yes, we were newlyweds, but we were also the youngest couple on a block of middle-aged couples whose kids had gone off to college and senior citizens who were retired. The first year we lived there not a single child came to our door on Halloween.
Eventually, after a few years some of our neighbors realized we had been in the same place for a while and weren’t going to move away. People started talking to us a bit, small talk at first, then real conversations. Our super flower gardening neighbors gave us some advice on how to spruce up the front yard and donated an extra ornamental plant to the cause. We’ve started making some inroads.
It is still hard, especially for me, who moved from a rural area, to get used to the nose-to-the-ground “do not disturb” sentiment of people in Northern New Jersey. Just last week a neighbor was shoveling heavy piles of slush outside of our house to make room for his car to park. I donned my snow boots and grabbed a shovel hoping to help him out and be neighborly. Standing there, in the sleet, we talked about the crazy weather and how our town made parking so difficult. “Do you want some help?” I asked. “No, I’m alright,” he replied. A bit stunned at someone refusing snow removal help, I walked away and pretended to clean my car off and tidy up the driveway a bit before heading back inside. These are the cultural battles one must face when trying to foster community in the suburbs.
But we trudge on nonetheless. We’ve been thinking about baking for our neighbors soon, since the sting of having our plate of Christmas cookies rejected by a neighbor a few years back has worn off. (Seriously, only in the suburbs would a neighbor pretend she is not home when Christmas cookies are involved! She just left us on her stoop, ringing her doorbell in the cold, until we gave up and walked back home.) We’ve been thinking of giving away more vegetables from our garden during the summer months. We’re trying to get creative with how we approach being neighborly with our loveable neighbors who want desperately to be left undisturbed.
It’s hard not to become apathetic when the walls come up and people want to hide in their homes and watch TV all night, but it’s an uphill battle worth fighting―for community’s sake!