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America’s ‘new’ neighborhoods weaken sense of community

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POSTED January 31, 2010 2:14 a.m.
Americans no longer have the concept of shame nor community responsibility.

Manteca Police Saturday night were conducting a driving under the influence and driver’s license checkpoint when one a young man in an Acura tried to avoid it.

An alert officer noticed something amiss that would allow the driver to be pulled over.

The driver – apparently without a license either because it was suspended or he simply didn’t bother to get one – argued with officers not to impound his vehicle as he had a job and a child to get to child care. No remorse. No shame. Just rationalization of why the law of the land shouldn’t apply to him.

There was a time when driving without a license would have been viewed as shameful behavior. Not anymore.

It is no different than thumbing one’s nose at the ban against using a hand-held cell phone when you’re driving except other motorists don’t know if you are piloting a potential killing and maiming machine without benefit of a license because it was suspended for wanton behavior that jeopardizes the lives of others.

The proliferation of unlawful behavior can be tracked down to the weakening of social standards. America has gone from being overboard with suffocating puritanical standards to a point where many have no sense of community.

There are plenty of culprits to blame – the expansion of the welfare state, the mobility of Americans, the cultural elevation of the perception that individual wants and desires always have a higher priority over community, and the de facto conceding of much of our community standards by the for-profit entertainment industry.

But to blame MTV et al  for an increase in community disconnection and the overall coarsening of human behavior  is unfair unless you toss in other corporations that work hard to break down standards to sell their products whether it is the purveyors of sugary cereal or the pushers of tobacco products.

The best chance we have of reversing – or at least stemming the tide – is to retake our neighborhoods. It is a war not against gangs and physical blight as much as it is against the unintended consequences of central air conditioning, TVs and computers.

It wasn’t too many decades ago that people actually sat and talked on front porches or conversed with neighbors as they watered their yards. Now households are sealed off inside climate controlled houses and if they do venture outside it is into the back and not the front yard where social intercourse once took place on a daily basis.

It was a time when everyone knew – or at least thought they knew – everyone else’s business. Trample Mrs. Wisdom’s gardenias two blocks away while playing hide and seek and it was likely your parents would know about it before you opened the front door.

Of course, there are those who will argue it isn’t safe for kids to play in the neighborhood any more that far from home. They may be right although our fears are overly heightened compared to the actual incidents of crimes committed against kids by strangers.

At any rate, the very reason why it is less safe to go outside can be tracked down not to mothers working as some conservatives like to argue or poverty as some liberals contend but simply the change in American housing and neighborhoods made all the worse by our restless mobility where it is almost hearsay in some quarters to stay put in one home for 10 years or longer.

A neighbor sometimes bemoans the fact that they didn’t buy a bigger home when they had the chance years ago. They’ve stayed put for more than 30 years, own their home outright, raised a family, and interact with neighbors even helping some elderly ones care for their yard.

Their kids benefitted from good parenting and a good neighborhood and have strong senses of community not to mention respect for law that governs us all.  By good neighborhood that doesn’t mean McMansions with a swimming pool in the backyard lining wide streets designed for cars and not people. Good means people, who interacted with them while they were growing up.

It is the only way that one really develops a sense of responsibility to someone besides your immediate family. You can’t share that sense of community if you are raised in relative isolation.

If we really want to do something about social ills created by social disconnect we might just start by insisting that new neighborhoods are designed to encourage the creation of a sense of community and not as simply a place where we go to lock ourselves away from society.

We should not be surprised when someone sees no problem with driving or tagging a neighbor’s garage door.

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