Glastonbury neighborhoods forum yields insights

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Glastonbury - posted Mon., Oct. 28, 2013
Professor Ann Marie Garran said that while closer neighborhoods are a good idea, people need to be more inclusive. Photos by Steve Smith.
Professor Ann Marie Garran said that while closer neighborhoods are a good idea, people need to be more inclusive. Photos by Steve Smith.

The Glastonbury Martin Luther King Community Initiative hosted a forum titled “Do Neighborhoods Matter? – Building Connections in Vibrant Communities” on Oct. 24, and invited a panel of experts who had some varying impressions on how important neighborhoods are in today's society, and brought up some interesting points on both sides. Much of the discussion was about whether suburban sprawl is too spread out, making geographical distance a barrier to getting close with one's neighbors.

Dr. Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, presented a case that neighborhoods do not matter all that much. “Communities are important, but there is the happy side and the dark side,” he said. “There are communities that include and communities that exclude.”

Walsh, a Glastonbury resident, said that in pastoral times people were part of communities and basically it was a necessary part of survival. There wasn't much choice. Now that there is more choice, communities are more segmented.

“There are lots of ways in which communities are manifested in Glastonbury, but not so much on the street where you live,” he said. “My experience in Glastonbury is deeply connected to being a parent in the schools.”

Walsh said that the big, single-family houses widely-spaced are nice places, but don't offer much in the way of meeting one's neighbors. He added that the neighborhood world of the 1950's and 1960's was a place that some people did not like, and that while there is talk about making neighbors closer nowadays, not everyone wants that.

“Everyone was in your face,” he said. “They weren't characterized by great diversity. They were micro-climates of great uniformity, and in a lot of ways that was reassuring, but a lot of people were just dying to get out of there.”

Peter Lovenheim, author of “In The Neighborhood: Searching for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time,” presented the counterpoint that neighborhoods do matter, because they help with some rather basic needs. “I think we can have many communities,” he said. “They matter because we're all mortal. We're all subject to health emergencies in the middle of the night. Sometimes the only person who can be there quickly enough is the person next door or across the street.”

Lovenheim said neighbors can also share resources, citing power tools and baking needs as just a few of many examples. He said that if a person is baking a cake and lacks vanilla extract, driving to the store is a waste of gas and money, rather than simply borrowing from a neighbor. The same is true, he said, about everyone owning their own set of expensive lawn equipment.

“It's called 'collaborative consumption,” he said. “It only works with neighbors, because everything has to be close at hand. I think neighborhoods matter, because neighbors can enrich our lives in ways we only know if we know them. The social fabric of this society is great.”

Panelist Susan Campbell is the Communications and Development director of the non-profit policy and advocacy organization Partnership for Strong Communities. She said that unfortunately, people join fewer clubs and organizations, and have essentially “retreated to their homes.” She said she and her family moved to someplace new, and had to make new friends because their former social circle came from their son's friends' parents.

“I found myself knocking on doors to make friends with my neighbors, because I didn't know how else to do it,” she said. “It was weird, but I made friends. I came from a neighborhood where I knew everyone...I did not want to live in a bedroom community. Because it was such a diverse neighborhood, I got some things such as great recipes. I've eaten food I've never seen, and still can't identify.”

Dr. Ann Marie Garran, professor of casework sequence at the UConn School of Social Work, said there are pros and cons to neighborhoods. “It's a mixed bag,” Garran said. “I think about inclusivity and about who is welcome in the community and who is not.” She added that there are true barriers, such as fences, but also more-covert barriers, which are made by people such as realtors and bankers.

“I long for community and neighborhoods that matter, but I think we have to think about what we want those to look like, and what we have to do to make that happen,” Garran said, adding that while some people are nostalgic about the way neighborhoods used to be, others never had that.

Garran added that while being more spread out is the goal of some, there is also a lack of curiosity coupled with fears that keep people from learning about one another.

“That would help us to bridge some of that [gap in] understanding,” she said. “We know what happens in our community, but don't have that curiosity to go 10 or 15 miles down the road. As we continue to move to our tracts and corners...and do more things in isolation...we are willing to to go off of stereotypes and myths, and not really operationalize anything to figure out relationships with other people.”

Serveral members of the audience said their neighborhoods have some sort of social organization, including “welcome wagons” and block parties. Glastonbury resident Kathleen Housley said it is one's responsibility to know one's neighbors.

“Community is not just about what I get,” she said. “It is about my responsibility as a citizen, to where I live. I am not expecting all of my neighbors to like me, and I'm probably not going to like them. Responsibility transcends that, so does having each other's back. I don't care what my neighbor looks like, I don't care what party he or she is part of, if they need me, they can call me at two o'clock in the morning.”

For more information on the Glastonbury Martin Luther King Community Initiative, visit www.gmlkci.org.


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