As we become more dogmatic about our political views, we become more likely to wall ourselves off from any reminder of an opposing viewpoint, even down to where we choose to live.
Recently, my husband and I put a contract on a home in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m thankful that we found a suitable place within the first few weeks of house hunting because over the years our tastes have changed and shot off into opposite directions.
My husband travels for work often, and in recent years he would frequently arrive home on a Friday from a week or two of client meetings to find a neighbor pulling a cooler full of beer into our driveway. It was a summer neighborhood thing that started shortly after we purchased our current home—if our cars were in the driveway after 4:30, neighbors and kids would start filling up our porch and backyard with friendly chatter, bouncing balls, cherubic shouts, and adult beverages. My husband would happily fire up the grill whether he’d spent the week in Chicago, London, or right at home in Columbia, where we now live.
For many reasons—both ours and our neighbors’—those convivial evenings haven’t come to fruition this summer. We’ve felt some neighborhood strife over the last year that seems to be redefining our interactions, and it turns out that it’s part of a worrying trend in America—but I’ll get to that in a minute.
When we sat down with our realtor in Charleston to map out a plan of action, it was clear that my husband and I had different desires in our future home. Aaron imagined an improved version of what we already have—a nice house with a backyard that would be inviting for neighbors and their kids to come hang out on the weekends. He wanted a pool (spending my childhood digging dead frogs out of pool filters cured me of that desire long ago). He wanted the kids’ toys to be all the way across the house where we wouldn’t experience the angry pain of stepping on a Hot Wheel in the middle of the night (I’m with him on that one). He wanted a garage large enough to park my wagon, his big SUV, and store kayaks, bikes, and whatnot (I’d give anything to get rid of the SUV and one of the kayaks).
When it was my turn I even surprised myself. I basically gave a demanding little speech:
“First, we need office space; primarily for me and my writing/photography/too-many-ideas-at-once projects. Aaron needs a place for a desk and file cabinet (or even a ‘man space’ that is NOT in the same room as mine). A playroom would be great, and that can come in the form of an extra bedroom, loft, whatever…just not within view of a formal living room or formal dining room. I’m one of the last people under the age of 50 who absolutely NEEDS to have a formal dining room. It’s just a thing for me. Also, I have a personal vendetta against cookie-cutter housing. There’s this stereotype that goes along with it that the neighbors have to have cookie-cutter personalities, as well. I don’t fall in line with something just because there’s an expectation of how a group or neighborhood is supposed to be. There are some people who seek that out—and I know and adore some of them—but it’s not what I want my kids to experience. I want to give the boys an experience that will help them adapt to different types of living situations when they go out into the world one day. I want it to be natural for them to move through a metropolitan area or a tiny village.”
Honestly, I hadn’t seen that diatribe coming, but I should have. I’d just spent the last year personally experiencing America’s downward trend in neighborly interactions, for which suburban living is largely to blame.
In 1995, sociologist Robert Putnam wrote an essay warning of the decline of America’s social capital. “Social capital,” according to Oxford, is defined as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Putnam argued that this decline has been shown through heavily reduced attendance at organized public activities like religious worship, civic engagement, and public forums, such as lectures and town hall meetings. What’s worse is that this behavior has caused the Great American Neighborhood to become a much less neighborly place. Economist Joe Cortright recently reported his findings from tracking memberships to volunteer organizations and conducting surveys about the likelihood of neighbor-to-neighbor interaction. He found that our trust in one another has hit a 40-year low.
According to the book Social Trends in American Life, 44% of people responding to the General Social Survey in 1974 said they’d spent time socializing with neighbors within the last month. By 2008, that percentage had dropped to around 30%. This survey is conducted at regular intervals, and evidence has shown that percentage dropping lower each time.
The drop in neighborly interactions is congruent with the increasing amount of polarization and identity politics in our society. As we become more dogmatic about our political views, we become more likely to wall ourselves off from any reminder of an opposing viewpoint, even down to where we choose to live. Couples with conservative leanings seek out neighborhoods that reflect those beliefs in their makeup and demographics, and couples with liberal leanings will do the same. Of course, those two neighborhoods will be as different as can be, and in suburban areas this trend is a raison d’être. Conversely, as we move out into these neighborhoods with yards and space and like-minded people, we enter the privacy of all that space and we don’t want to come out to say hello. As this prevalence grows, we’re abandoning civic life in our culture.
In his essay for Journal of Democracy, Putnam states:
“…quality of governance [is] determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies, and football clubs—these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.”
Put simply, our dogged determination to only surround ourselves with those who think like us is a direct affront to the form of government we espouse. Not only that, but when we treat “others”—as in liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, gays, etc.—with suspicion or mistrust, we’re actually perpetuating antisocial behavior beyond ourselves.
In March, researchers at Stanford University published results from a study finding that “…when people feel disrespected simply because they belong to a particular gender, race, or other group, they are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviors like stealing, cheating, and lying.”
After wondering a bit about the words that came out of my mouth when speaking to the realtor, I realized that I was reacting to my own experience with divisive neighboring. I adore where we live because of my home’s proximity to Whole Foods Market and the hawks, deer, and alligators we spy on a daily basis (I’m a little less fond of the alligators). I love that I can go for a walk in the dark and it isn’t a big deal.
But recently, the air of friendliness has taken on a slight chill. The indirect national impact of the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York is an increased suspicion between people of color and their white neighbors. Where I live, summer and the start of the school year tend to bring an uptick in car break-ins. It happens every year, and sometimes the culprits are local hooligans, delinquents, or young gang members, and sometimes the culprits are kids from the neighborhood who display the same behavioral characteristics while evading those monikers because they are from white, upper middle class families. When the break-ins began again this season, the reaction was different. The neighborhood Facebook page became a bulletin board for posting sightings of black people walking down the street. When this first started happening, it was difficult for me to not call all of my black friends to go for a walk with me just to see what would happen.
Our savvy realtor lined up several house tours that ran the gamut from Desperate Housewives-style suburbia (always warning me ahead of time by telling me to get my paper bag ready for a joking fit of hyperventilation) to homes crammed together within a three-minute walk of the center of downtown. We ended up putting an offer on something somewhere in between—a newer home situated amongst historic ones, a few blocks from Charleston’s main thoroughfare. It has two huge garage bays on the ground floor for our cars, bikes, and kayaks. If all goes as planned, we won’t have a backyard, but there’s room to grill and we’ll be two blocks from a playground. Our boys will learn how to conduct themselves on city sidewalks but will still have the ability to run around the park with their friends.
I haven’t met any of the neighbors yet, but I suspect they’ll range from college students who are renting apartments to families who’ve had roots in Charleston since it was a walled Colonial city. Our diverse needs will be addressed while living amongst a diverse range of people and experiences. We’ll get to know our neighbors in much the same way we did when we moved to our current home…by luring them with the smell of a barbecue grill and an offer of a glass of wine.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.