I came across a piece titled A Republic of Front Porches by Patrick Deneen yesterday, it draws a very different picture of front porches and neighborhood ties than I’m used to encountering. The piece views front porches and neighborliness as positive albeit for a host of reasons that are different than those I usually cite.
I rarely view my experiments in building neighborhood-level social capital as overtly political. I see the ties we are building as neighborhood as accomplishing several discrete tasks:
- reducing crime because we know who lives in our neighborhood and who doesn’t
- providing a better environment in which our children can grow and play
- fostering a social framework for afterwork and weekend beer-drinking/socializing
- probably a few other things that i haven’t the attention span to make note of here
Deneen’s piece draws on Tocqueville to make the lack of front porches and the absence of neighborliness seem downright unpatriotic. Deneen cites Tocqueville to make the case that in the absence of friends and family [read: neighbors, now that we rarely live walking distance from family ] the individual must turn instead to and ever-growing government for aid in times of need:
[the individual] is full of confidence and pride in his independence from his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support for his individual weakness” (Democracy in America, II.iv.3).
I am especially interested in Deneen’s position that front porches serve as a “not quite public, not quite private” space that prepare[s] us for lives of responsible citizenship, community, and the proprieties of private life. It can be argued here that one way of viewing the isolation of suburbia is as a childish escape from the responsibilities of engagement and neighborliness.
The one line that I get a lot when I speak to people about building neighborhood-level social capital is, “Well, what if I don’t like my neighbors? If he’s a total d-bag, aren’t I better off not knowing him?” Perhaps, but I think you can infer from Deneen’s position that you don’t have to hang out and drink a beer with the neighbors-you-don’t-like after work every night. However, because you share in the responsibilities of civic engagement and self-governance with them you can not simply build a mote around your house and hope that the world will just become a better place without your or your neighbor’s participation and interaction.
There are so many things that are made easy by the conveniences of our modern lifestyle, so many ways that we can live in bubbles of pleasant, comfortable isolation. We have, in fact, built our world around avoiding friction, sometimes to our long-term detriment. Perhaps some of the difficulties and friction of social interaction with our neighbors that we seek to avoid are exactly those things that might help us and our democracy flourish.