Culture At Large

Yearning for community - or not

David Greusel

What kinds of communities do Americans want? Since every American church founded in the last 20 years (including mine) has strategically chosen “community” for a middle name, you’d think the concept of community would be highly valued in the United States. But think again.

In a helpful post, Kaid Benfield parses the most recent community preference survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). You should read Benfield’s post to get the nuances, but the short version is that Americans want to live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods consisting entirely of single-family homes on large lots.

If you’re confused, welcome to the club. I’m reminded of the comedian who observed that Americans want to lose weight by eating ice cream. The NAR poll reveals a real dissonance: a public torn between the desire for community and the desire for privacy, which is a tension that echoes back to the third chapter of Genesis.

After the fall, Adam and Eve’s first inclination was to hide. Having gained a degree of self-knowledge, they decided to hide rather than seek intimacy with their Creator. We have been hiding from God - and each other - ever since. The NAR housing poll reveals, unwittingly, one of the consequences of original sin: an overwhelming majority of respondents rate “privacy from neighbors” a top priority in housing.

True community also values privacy, but on a sliding scale.

One might argue that this means privacy from grilled onions, crying babies and loud music, but I suspect the desire is much deeper: the desire for autonomy, the freedom to do what I want, unencumbered by the eyes, ears and judgment of neighbors.

True community also values privacy, but on a sliding scale: from bedroom to porch to sidewalk, we recognize the increasing right of neighbors to observe, comment on and participate in our lives. I submit that this is a healthy, Biblical view of community, and one that is more attainable where a mix of land uses, housing types and household sizes are found in close proximity. The opposite desire - for a large home on a larger lot, where I can see out but you can’t see in - is just the 21st-century, North American version of the fig leaf.

There is an obvious tension between the desire for complete privacy and the desire to have stores, schools and amenities within a short walk of my entirely private home. One can imagine places where this desired condition almost exists: the Banks’ imaginary home in Disney’s Mary Poppins comes to mind, as do the row houses of Baltimore or the brownstones of New York. But clearly, you can’t be a short walk from shopping if you and your neighbors live on a one-acre lot. Geometry forbids it. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his awful, proposed Broadacre City, assumed that personal helicopters would solve the conundrum posed by acre lots. They might solve the transport problem (or create a worse one), but they would not create a community - Biblical or otherwise.

Real community, the kind that our new churches imagine they represent, is found in close-knit neighborhoods where people work, play, shop, worship and celebrate in close proximity - walking distance. It is an essentially urban condition. This is not to suggest that private automobiles are evil. But the car has enabled the atomization of the city in a way that was unimaginable a century ago. And this atomization has moved the needle on that ancient tension between community and privacy far toward privacy. Which, if you buy my basic argument, is not the direction Christians should want it to go.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America, Home & Family, Family