Personal Reflection “Vetting the Neighbors” John Bernardini
When my wife and I started looking for a house, we knew that we would be pretty limited by our budget. We would not be building the house of our dreams or residing in any new and trendy neighborhood. The most we hoped for was a solid fixer-upper with a good roof, dry basement, and within a 30 minute commute from work. We also knew that newer didn’t always mean better when it came to home construction.
The homes in our price range each seemed to have certain features we liked, but none had everything we wanted. We began to get a little discouraged. Finally we narrowed the search down to two houses. One house had a big fenced yard for the dogs, a wood-burning stove, and a pool table in the basement! Just what my wife always wanted! The other house was in a quiet neighborhood, also had a big yard, a garage, and a nice kitchen.
On paper, both were similar, but the deciding factor ended up being the neighborhood the houses were in. The house we ended up choosing was in a post-WW2 development that had previously been a tree nursery. All the homes though over 50 years old, were well kept. The yards were cut, and flowers and shrubs were the norm. It was obvious to us that the people took pride in their homes, a value we both shared.
The neighbors all introduced themselves to us, welcomed us, and offered assistance for anything we might need. Also apparent, was the fact that the neighbors all knew one another. In casual conversation you could tell that they had a good idea of what was going on in each others’ lives, knew their kids names, and where everyone worked (or didn’t work) , and not in a nosey or gossipy way either!
Now, all said, I could still tell we were being vetted by “the neighborhood” to get a feel for who we were and to make sure that we weren’t ex-cons or axe murderers. Our next door neighbor informed us that he was very happy a nice couple moved in that seemed like they were going to take care of the place and not sell pot out of the garage every night like the last people. I told him not to worry, I gave up selling pot years ago and all the money these days is in prescription drugs anyway!
The good will did not wear off either. My wife and I were included in picnics and barbeques like we had been there 15 years.
During our first winter, I was working rotating shifts at the Eastlake Power plant and couldn’t always clear the driveway and steps. This was done for us without asking, and it was tough sometimes to track down the courteous neighbor who helped. I did my best to return the good will.
Everyone is there to lend a hand. We all share connections and skills to help each other. Many of us have started kitchen gardens and each year we share the produce and plan together for the next season. Over the years, we’ve shared meals, built literal bridges, enjoyed a cold beverage of choice around a campfire, and marked life’s milestones together. It’s a neighborhood, but it’s more than that, it’s a true little community, one that values people over things, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
This morning’s first reading is by writer and journalist James Howard Kunstler, from his 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape.
Though the Puritans pilgrims had exiled themselves spiritually and geographically from England, they still thought of themselves as English, carrying with them English laws and customs. Within a year of their fateful landing they came to terms with London financiers and received a charter that gave legal birth to Plymouth Plantation. The Puritan foothold in the New World was greatly fortified by the creation of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629. It began as a commercial venture, but almost immediately shifted its focus from trade to religion […then] they set about building real towns. …
The first towns naturally enough were modified versions of the late medieval English towns – though the supply of land was enormous by English standards. In England, farmers lived neatly clustered together in villages with their fields located all around on the outskirts. Typically, an early Massachusetts twon was organized with individually owned home lots around a fenced area common used to pen livestock. Townships were granted to whole congregations who crossed the ocean as a group, bringing with them highly localized customs and farming practices. Where a minority wouldn’t abide the way a town was run, they could resolve their problem by “hiving out” to some unsettled area – always as a group – and creating a way of life with which they were at ease. (1)
Sermon “The Promise,” Rev Denis Paul
In 1517 Catholic priest Martin Luther wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences. The treatise came to be known as “The 95 Theses,” and it marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a frantic period of forty years or so, all across Europe, when Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist and Anabaptist churches separated from the Catholic church and from each other.
The Puritans, separating themselves from Anglicanism, were a sect that embraced a congregational polity similar to the way Unitarian Universalists govern our churches today. They left England, escaping what historian Robert Merrill Bartlett describes as “the tyranny of the hierarchy, the indolence of the clergy, and the lethargy of the laity.” Their goal in establishing the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629 was to build “A City on the Hill,” where the saintly residents would model a life of Christian charity, purity and cooperation.
Only, they disagreed about what that model life would look like. In 1636, they expelled Roger Williams, who held crazy belief in religious freedom and separation of church and state. He led his followers to “hive out” and settle the Providence Plantations, and found the first Baptist church in North America. They divided their settlement into long narrow plots, barely a hundred feet wide and more than a mile deep, fronted on what was then called “Towne Streete” which ran alongside “the Great Salt River.” (2)
Over the following decades, as the population increased with new people from new churches with different theologies, the lots were broken up again into a grid of streets. The Great Salt River was renamed the Providence, and Towne Streete became Main Street. New churches were built a block uphill on Benefit Street, including the Congregational Church, which would eventually separate from that denomination and become the First Unitarian Church.
And so has gone the geographical and theological history of the United States. When you don’t agree, you move on, form your own church, in your own community of like-minded individuals.
So Fast forward a hundred years to the late 1840’s, decades after the Revolutionary War, to the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was a typical New England town, developed along old horse trails, with the Unitarian Church in the Center, at the main intersection. Across the cemetery, adjacent to town hall, stood the Universalist Church.
Feeling the congestion of a population booming at 1800 souls (3), Henry David Thoreau built himself a little house alongside Walden Pond, just about a mile and half south of the center of Concord. The site was through the woods, but still on the same side of the new Fitchburg railroad.
Seeking self-reliance and simplicity, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” (4)
Like other transcendentalists of his time, Thoreau was seeking deeper understanding of his connection to the eternal not through the established tenets of Unitarianism, but by learning from the proponents of Biblical Criticism as well as philosophers like Immanuel Kant.
Transcendentalists were hoping to create a uniquely American literature and theology, rooted in the primacy of humanity.
Thoreau, you should know, hung out with folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker. And they all hung out with Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who served for nearly a decade as the Missionary Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, planting new congregations in the midwest and the plains. Jenk’s nephew was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was profoundly influenced by transcendalists’ love of Nature, with a capital N. (5)
Wright also loved cars. At any given time, he owned way more of them than he could use – or afford – and he painted them all the same “Cherokee Red.” He saw the automobile as the savior of humanity, the thing that would allow people, ordinary working people, to leave the filth and noise of commerce and manufacturing and go out to a new kind of landscape he called “Broadacre City,” which he described in pictures and words in 1932 in his book The Disappearing City. (6) In his imagination, the city of the future was a glorification of that which we now call suburbia, a land where everyone lives on one-acre plots, and everything is accessible by automobile. Rather than being lost in the vertically-oriented density of the city, citizens of Broadacre City would find themselves in the horizontally-oriented openness of Nature.
By the end of World War 2, urban planners across the United States had adopted Wright’s vision as the ideal forms of development and transportation, while builders were taking the plans of his American System Built Houses and adapting them to be more affordable for VA-financed buyers. Broadacre City became the promise of the American way of life. Narrow lots on communal pastures had given way to sprawling subdivisions with names like Northwoods and Country Estates.
Broadacre City is now, if not the norm, the goal. Except in places like Kirtland – the City of Faith and Beauty – where faith is at least 20 different Christian denominations for 7,000 residents;(7) and beauty is FIVE acres per household.
It is a beautiful place. At Tuesday night’s interfaith Thanksgiving service at the Historic Kirtland Temple, Mayor Mark Tyler expressed his gratitude for its beauty, its safety, and its people.
Meanwhile across the country in cities big and small, like Cleveland and Concord Ohio, a new generation is doing exactly what John has done. People are moving to denser neighborhoods, investing in quality, sharing resources, and looking out for one another. They’re returning to the village life of the Puritans.
Second Reading (John)
Our second reading is from “Faith and Ferguson: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community,” by Leah Gunning Francis, a minister in the United Church of Christ. She is Associate Dean for Contextual Education and Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary.
I live in the city of St. Louis with my husband and our two sons. The city of Ferguson is a nearby northern suburb of St. Louis. Our house, which is on the south side of St. Louis, is only 11 miles from the Canfield Green apartment community where Michael Brown was killed. During my first visit to the apartment complex, two observations stopped me in my tracks.
First, I was stunned by the narrowness of the street on which Brown was killed. I had been closely following the news coverage of the unfolding events for two days, and on television the street looked much wider than it actually is. Canfield Drive looked like a familiar street because it is not much wider than my own street – the same kind of street that my sons ride their bikes along.
The second startling observation was that this is an apartment community. It is privately owned, complete with manicured lawns and trimmed bushes. There is ample space for children to play and frolic around, and the location where Brown was killed is in the middle of this community. Apartments are clustered on both sides of the street. As I stood beside the street memorial where Brown’s body once lay, the gravity of what actually happened permeated my mind, body, and spirit… (8)
Sermon, Part Two “Little Pink Houses,” Rev Denis Paul
In 1962, Unitarian Universalist Malvina Reynolds, wrote a song that became a big hit for UU icon Pete Seeger. The song was called “Little Boxes,” and it described what many considered to be the dark side of the post-war building boom: homogenization; moving into cheap, identical, soulless boxes differentiated only by their perky colors, and living unexamined lives of drudgery.
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made out of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow and they all look just the same.
The song was an early descriptor of a time that has since come to be called the period of white flight from urban centers, inspired by Daly City California, just south of San Francisco.
Twenty years later, John Cougar Mellenkamp had a huge pop hit with the next generation’s manifesto on race and place, “Little Pink Houses.”
There’s a black man with a black cat living in a black neighborhood. He’s got an interstate running through his front yard. You know, he thinks he’s got it so good.
Cleveland Heights is the first place I’ve ever lived where there’s nothing to separate “us” from them. In Enfield CT, where I grew up, there are two freeways cordoning off the northwest corner of town. In Providence, where I became an adult, the Providence River and a freeway separate the wealthy historic district from section 8 housing.
In hilly San Francisco, I could look out my front window to the rows of little houses almost, in neat, gently curving lines on the terrain of Daly City. I had a perfect view of the houses of ticky tacky, with a giant, 12-lane freeway between us. During the postwar period of expansion, highway 101 kept the grit and crime of San Francisco away from the pristine streets of Daly City.
In El Cerrito CA, the elevated tracks of the commuter rail system run almost parallel to the city limits shared with one of those third rate cities that’s always on the verge of bankruptcy, saddled with high rates of reported crime. I lived on the “wrong side” of those tracks, in the narrow flatlands, about 4 blocks wide in the south, narrowing to only two blocks in the north, creating a pressure that was palpable.
In all of those places, the dividing lines between us and them were obvious. So, when we started working from a distance with a realtor and looking online at homes in Cleveland Heights, we couldn’t tell where the “good” neighborhoods ended, and the “bad” ones started. Thanks to a program that allows users to virtually move through the interior of a property, I fell in love with a home that was exactly what I wanted and it was in the kind of location I love: almost across the street from an elementary school, two blocks from a park, in a walkable, geographically central neighborhood.
Our realtor was a little weird when we mentioned it, breaking a long silence with nervous chatter about returns on investments in southern neighborhoods versus northern. My take away: The closer you get to East Cleveland, the lower the desirability of the neighborhood. East Cleveland, of course, being one of those third rate cities always on the verge of bankruptcy, saddled with high rates of reported crime.
But when we arrived to tour homes in person, I couldn’t tell the difference between the neighborhoods. The houses were of the same style, with similarly-sized streets, lined with big trees and landscaped with neatly clipped shrubs. The house we loved online had just sold, much to the relief of our dear realtor, so we bought our second favorite house: way on the south side of town, just a few blocks from Shaker Heights.
You probably already know what we discovered after moving in. Property tax rates in Cleveland Heights are shockingly high. The city goes through an arduous process to keep the streets clear of leaves in the fall, a nice perk, but it costs a fortune to use the city’s recreation center or pool. I couldn’t figure out what our tax dollars were being used for, so I asked fellow residents and repeatedly got the same answer: “We need a lot of police to keep East Cleveland out.”
Without the presence of a freeway or train tracks or river, we need lots of police officers to act as a barrier.
The thing is, none of these neighborhoods look any different from one another on the surface, just like Leah Gunning Francis’s neighborhood in South St. Louis doesn’t look any different from the Canfield Green apartment complex where Michael Brown lived and died.
I’ve studied urban planning since my teens. I should have known better, but still, I was surprised last Sunday when I arrived at Cudell Park and Recreation Center in West Cleveland for the vigil marking the anniversary of the death of Tamir Rice, killed there by a police officer when he was playing with a toy gun. I was surprised because I was expecting a rougher neighborhood. But it looked pretty similar to my own. The houses were a little taller and closer to one another and the street, but they were well-kept with the same big trees and neatly clipped shrubs.
Two observations stopped me in my tracks.
First, I recalled all the times people from the West Side of Cleveland were surprised that I live on the East Side. I’m not black. And I recalled all the times people in the suburbs east of Cleveland were surprised that I would live in the city, even a relatively lovely and stable first ring suburb like Cleveland Heights. It’s a scary place.
But I have choices. With decent capital from selling property in California and healthy credit score, I can live pretty much anywhere I want. Most importantly, my skin is white. I won’t be “directed,” to particular neighborhoods. Encouraged, maybe even judged, but not directed.
I thought about John and his wife Beth, and how, like me, they could choose where they live, based on the priorities they set for themselves; how they vetted their little enclave as their neighbors vetted them. Together, they have the resources and the will to build the kind of community they want to be part of, a community that includes gardens in the front yards and chickens in the back.
Some people don’t get to choose where they live.
Second, I recalled all the times I heard surprise that Tamir Rice could be shot in a place like the stable and attractive neighborhood near Cudell Park. And I thought about the terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks ago, how the 130 people killed were living in one of the most romantic, glamorous cities in the world. They were out for a night on the town, never thinking the worst to happen. And a couple days later, residents of St. Denis were shocked to be under siege as authorities hunted for the terrorists. You almost expect that kind of thing in a place like Burundi, where social unrest has been escalating as political and human rights deteriorate. But not in Paris. Not in St. Denis.
My hope is that we don’t allow the tragic events in Canfield Green, Cudell Park, and St. Denis to force us to retreat into the safety of our own neighborhoods. My hope is that we remember that tragedy can strike anywhere, and that is what connects us.
Our history has allowed us to keep separating ourselves from one another. In our quest for comfort, safety, and freedom we’ve lost our connection to people not just across the globe, but across town.
Our challenge for the future, if we’re to survive, is to stop the cycle of separation, and unite. We have to move beyond mere gratitude for our blessings, into gratitude for our common humanity. Our challenge is to see ourselves in the narrow, tree-lined streets of other neighborhoods, where people have fewer choices than we do. Once we do that, once we cross the natural and man made barriers between us, and notice the similarities in our lives, we can find our common humanity and our compassion for people like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
May we rise to that challenge.
(1) James Howard Kunstler. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. New York NY, Touchstone, 1993. P. 19-20.
(2) Charles W. Hopkins. “Plan Showing The First Division of Home Lots in Providence, RI.” 1886. Plan Showing The First Division of Home Lots in Providence, RI.
(3) Edward Jarvis. Sarah Chapin, ed. Traditions and Remembrances of Concord Massachusetts, 1779-1878. Amherst MA. University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. P. 203. Traditions and Remembrances of Concord Massachusetts
(4) Henry David Thoreau. Walden. Chapter 2, “Where I lived and what I lived for.” https://thoreau.eserver.org/walden02.html
(5) Naomi Uechi. “Emersonian Transcendentalism in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple.” Oxford University Press.https://isle.oxfordjournals.org/content/7/2/95.extract
(6) Frank Lloyd Wright. The Disappearing City. New York NY. William Farquhar Payson, 1932.
(8) Leah Gunning Francis. Ferguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. St. Louis MO, Chalice Press, 2015. P. 2.