Friday, March 02, 2007

A Sense Of Townness

It Takes A Town To Build A Community


Tried looking up the word in Webster's and on the web. Nothing in the dictionary, and little on the Internet worth repeating here.


We'll venture to define "townness" (at least for purposes of this blog) as the state of living in, near or close enough to a town so as to feel something akin to belonging -- being a part, if not in the center, of all things communal. A very real sense of community, perhaps.

And so it is, as we search for that community as existed in our youth -- or maybe only as a vague vision in our minds -- what we're really longing for is that sense of place that calls to us, draws us near, and provides sustenance.

Whether that sustenance is the warm and fuzzy feeling we get when our kids play together in a community park -- from which we can walk to the local school, library, barber shop and deli -- or simply knowing that we can get the morning paper or a gallon of milk from the local store without having to get in our cars or take two buses and a gypsy cab, what gives us that sense of community is not the communal nature of our lives alone, but rather, that sense of townness.

So we ask, as we often do, do we lack town centers and thriving Main Streets because we've lost that sense of community -- the connection between every man, woman and child -- or could it be that community has pretty much fallen by the wayside because we have misplaced among the "convenient" truths of big box stores and our addition to everything and anything online, that old time sense of townness.

Having spent the better part of this blogging life trying to rekindle that sense of community, at least among the so-called civic minded, we're going to make a stretch here and say, yes, community ain't what it used to be, but just look what happened to that place we used to call downtown.

Now, we're not talking about town in the governmental sense. Enough time spent trying to sort through that mess.

We're concerned here with townness in its most basic -- if not infrastrucural -- sense.

Look around your own town, and ask yourself a few questions. [The first one being, "Can you look around your own town by walking, or do you have to drive just to get into town?"]

Yes, the automobile, and the highways, byways, and Turnpikes that divide both town and community, have had a hand (or a muffler) in disrupting townness.

Still, we, a suburbia's citizens, have done our fair share of distancing ourselves from our towns.

We don't build communities like we used to -- in walking distance to schools, shopping, parks, and "downtowns." We don't even try.

We are no longer sustained by a central core to which each of us gravitates, whether for business or pleasure, but rather, we radiate into that overwhelming vortex of sprawl, sucking us ever further away from both town and townness.

Even our towns -- aside from the scattered villages that have held on (or at least tried) to their townness -- are not really towns anymore.

They have become indistinguishable areas we only reluctantly pass through on the way to someplace else. One economically depressed pseudo-hamlet melding almost seamlessly into the next.

Mismatched awnings. Boarded up storefronts. Illegal, oversized, eye-popping signage. Filthy sidewalks. Unchecked code violations. Nothing much going on to go to town for, as we hold our noses, close our eyes, and head straight to the mall.

Is it any wonder, then, that whatever sense of community we may have left in that place we once called a town is, at best, ephemeral, and, at most, estranged?

We can, after all, commune with nature on our own. We can commune with the cosmos, gazing up, if but vacantly, into the heavens. Yet, we cannot commune -- at least not in any meaningful way -- with one another -- as neighbors, as friends, as residents joined by a common bond -- without that sense of townness.

And we can never have townness when government neglects. and we overlook, the obligation -- the basic human need -- to design, to maintain, and, where necessary, to re-create, the very essence of community life -- our towns themselves.

If we want anything like a sustainable suburbia, then we'd better start thinking about -- and working toward -- sustainable towns!
- - -
If they can revitalize downtowns and create sustainable communities in Highland Park, NJ and Kennewick, WA -- cutting through the bureaucratic red tape and getting beyond the contentious debate -- then why the heck can't we get it done in Long Island, NY?

Just what will it take to get us from this --

to this? --

1 comment:

  1. Town of Hempstead ResidentFriday, March 02, 2007 1:37:00 PM

    As long as you have people willing to live in communities where "Main Street" and "Downtown" are the functional equivalents of squalor, and willing to pay top dollar for it, nothing will ever change.

    Add to this the indifference of, and mindless loyalty to, failed government -- one that revels in the apathy of the electorate -- and you've got the very formula that helps to create and sustain not liveable communities, but blight, brownfields, and bust smack in the center of town.

    Revitalize Long Island's towns and hamlets? Good luck with that!