I spent my childhood on 50th Avenue in Elmhurst, NY, part of the borough of Queens in New York City. From the late 60’s to the late 70’s this area was made up of a tight knit community. I knew most of my neighbors through church and school, and we knew all everyone by name. I couldn’t walk down the street without stopping to wave, chat or play with at least three or four different friends. We didn’t dare get into trouble because we knew that our friends’ parents were watching at times our own folks were unavailable. We played, we helped and we shared. We were a true community.
Socializing in the Evening
I often think of my old neighborhood during the summer months because I remember how no one I knew had air conditioning. To cool off, we spent our days outside. We played, sat in the shade and chatted, ate ice cream or swam in a very small pool. To escape the heat of our home we had dinner outside, seated at a picnic table under the large, shady maple tree in our back yard.
If we tried to spend the day inside, our parents kicked us out of the house. It was unheard of to watch TV during the day or stay inside simply because it was hot. Besides, it was hotter inside than outside.
At night, kids played out front until the street lights went on, teens chatted on the corner until curfew and parents sat on their stoops and chatted with the neighbors. At that time, it wouldn’t occur to us to spend our nights inside watching television or playing video games, and if someone told me I’d socialize using a computer I’d think they were daft.
When I 13, my family moved to suburbia and, again, we got to know most of our neighbors. At that time, families were beginning to spend more time inside either watching TV or playing Pong. Most of us did go outside and hang out with our friends in the evenings, and sometimes our parents sat on the porch and chatted with the neighbors. Mostly though, my parents relaxed after their long commute home from the city with a newspaper and TV.
When I was on my own, I moved back to a different, un-airconditioned apartment on the same block in Elmhurst, and guess what? As a grownup I sat outside on the stoop chatting with my landlady and other neighbors. They weren’t all the same people I grew up with years before, but the idea was the same; beat the heat by getting out of the hot apartment and talking to the neighbors. I continued to enjoy the community spirit.
Things have changed a bit
Eight years ago, my family and I moved to suburbia. We’re on a busy road with only a few neighbors. Sometimes in the evening, I sit on my deck wishing I had neighbors to talk to. I don’t see any kids in the backyards behind my home, but I can see the televisions on in their air conditioned homes.We have young friends come and visit, but they want to stay inside where it’s cool and play Wii. We host barbecues but half our company wants to stay inside and watch television rather than come outside and talk to us, because it’s cooler inside.
Will my son ever know the pleasure of hanging out at night and catching lightning bugs with his friends? Will my husband ever experience a good neighborhood chat from our front steps? Do people still sit on their stoops and front porches at night and enjoy some neighborhood gossip, or are they staying in to enjoy their favorite sitcom from the comfort of their air conditioned family rooms?
I didn’t live in an air conditioned home until 8 years ago. Before that, we had fans that blew the hot air around and relied on cross breezes, showers and cold drinks to cool us off. I often wonder if it’s worth the trade off. Is it better to have air conditioning or a social life? Is being cool and comfortable a trade off for being part of a community? I’m not so sure.
Virtual front porch
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and blogs, I have a virtual front porch. I can visit with both old and new friends and neighbors any time and discuss the news and gossip together. While this is a pleasant alternative, I can’t help but remember I’m really sitting at a desk by myself for most of the day. Being part of an online community is nice, but it in no way replaces the real thing.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy attending conferences and meetups. There’s no way a hearty laugh can replace an “LOL!” and 140 characters isn’t much of a conversation. There’s a real world out there, people. It may be cooler inside, but there are real people outside your door and they’re more interesting and entertaining than what’s hanging out on your laptop.
Real conversation or A.C?
If you had to choose between an air conditioned home and hanging out on your front stoop talking with the neighbors, what would you pick? If your answer is “people,” do you spend your evenings indoors anyway or are you sitting on the front porch or taking the dog for a walk just so you can enjoy the company of the people in your neighborhood?
Is it really worth the trade off?