The Sixties era new neighborhood that I grew up in, that I tramped around in, played capture the flag in, and literally breathed in, sported such street names as Surry, Gracewood, Fernwood, Cornwallis, Pembroke and others such as that -- a kind of mix of colonial (the largely brick house style) and pleasant names that would tend to appeal to the "new" suburbanites. It may have been suburbia, but it was a different suburbia -- one where you knew your neighbors (even the more eccentric ones) and where you left your doors unlocked and windows open. As kids, we lived in the streets and backyards and rode our bikes with impunity all over the city with no concern for our safety. Those were mostly good days. There was a sense of community in those neigborhoods.
How things have changed. The houses are larger, the windows seldom open to the world outside, the people glued to TVs and computer monitors. Guilty. It's happened to me too. And yet sometimes, like today, I throw open the window and just listen to what is outside, just remembering that I am a part of something larger than what goes on in my self-contained house environment. One of my neighbors has a kid with a dirt bike that ocassionally rides it down the strip of land behind my house. How annoying, I think, and yet I remember the same, riding my mini-bike all over the woods and backyards, having a blast at my mobility and noise and coolness at the age of ten. So, thank God for the dirt bike, a valuable memory-prompter. I hear trucks and cars, the unloading of groceries at the supermarket nearby, the drone of an airplane, the chattering of a squirrel, birdsongs, and the kids two house over jumping on the trampoline. I can sense connections when I can hear, when I open up to the world and leave the sometimes ghetto of the house. You see, mostly I choose what goes on in here, but out there I have to take what comes, and I have the sense that that's what's good for me, that's the sound of true community.
I'm prompted to think of such things by the excellent special issue of World Magazine which arrived today, an issue devoted to Architecture. I'm all over it, soaking it up. There's so little reflection on architecture and urban design from a Christian perspective. When Eternity Magazine folded over a cecade ago (or was it two decades ago?), World inherited its subscribers, and yet I've always felt that World lacked the kind of deep reflection on all of life that Eternity had, though I give it an A for effort. This issue gives me hope. In fact it makes me remember an old issue of Eternity devoted to Architecture! (My architect friend Andy will enjoy this issue.)
It's always amazed me that though much of our lives as believers in the world but not of it are spent in and around the built environment, we so seldom reflect on it. Beyond matters of taste ("What an ugly building," or "nice house") we are constantly readjusting to a ever-changing landscape. We lose landmarks, the very land is reshaped, and we find it difficult to remember what was there before. Call it urban drift --- the change that happens while we sleep. The old mall where my wife and new baby used to eat (cheaply) is gone and a new shopping center has risen from its ruins, but I sometimes wonder where exactly was that restaurant? I can't even locate it on the site anymore. Where are the people who worked there ("serve you please?"), where did they find new jobs, and what happened to all the old folks who used to meet there for dinner and community? How disorienting it must have been to them.
I know that we can't simply design community, can't simply build subdivisions differently or homes differently and have "community." It takes much more than that kind of environmental determinism. It requires an understanding of what it is to be human, of what we each need and desire, and it requires souls that are willing to look beyond themselves. In fact, it begins with a very human architecture: Me. And you. Us. And it's rooted in the community that was there in the Trinity from all eternity.
I like what Christopher Leerssen said about churches in one of the articles in World: "[C]hurches and their buildings should be less clubby, private affairs and more of that common ground for "the Church" proper to interact with the outside world and skeptics. Churches should throw open wide their doors by hosting art shows, financial seminars, offering mercy, and musical performances --- invite the public and create that haven for public discourse."
Open doors. Open windows. Open hearts. I guess the kid on the bike is not that annoying. And I'll bet he wants to belong, somewhere. In fact, I might just sleep with the window open. It might do my heart good.