As I sit in my bedroom and stare out at my neighbors’ snow-covered backyards, in the midst of the time of year commonly called “The Holidays,” I remember this special, wonderful season when I was a child. Thoughts and discussions about the word community have bounced around our media waves and public venues for the past few years. Some talking about the loss of community in our day. Trying to resurrect what has been lost behind 6-foot-tall fenced in homes, tiny front porches, and neighborhood sidewalks and streets devoid of people.
I’ve been pondering these changes over the last thirty to forty years in communities. If you were a child in the 1970s like I was, you may relate to what I’ll be expressing here.
I grew up swinging on leathery-type seats with rusty chains to hold onto, pumping my legs to reach the sky so that I could jump out of the little seat, feeling the joy of that wisp of a moment of flying before my feet hit the ground–a ground of simple dirt.
I remember climbing up the huge metal slide’s ladder to its tower-like top. To my ten-year-old eyes, I had to be up at least twelve to fifteen feet from the ground. And being a fan of Mary Poppins, I opened my umbrella and jumped from the tower, waiting to glide gently down from the heights to land with a smile of triumph and contentment.
Instead, that joy of flying lasted about two seconds before I came crashing down like a lead weight, hitting the ground hard and falling over on my side. I wasn’t hurt, though. But having learned that experiment didn’t work, I never tried the umbrella jump again. However, it still was a lot of fun. I had such a fantastical imagination back then.
Every year, I looked forward to going trick-or-treating with my friends. And most every house, we knew the families that lived there. I knew these homes because the kids that met me at a mutual friend’s front yard would become acquainted with me, and soon, we’d all be playing together, the streets filled with kids playing ball, hide and go seek, ghost in the graveyard, and bloody murder (some folks don’t know this one, but it’s like the opposite of hide and go seek. The murderer hides and jumps out, surprising the group of kids going around looking for him/her, and the first kid tagged by the murderer had to be the murderer the next go around), etc.
We stayed out after the street lamps came on, and dove behind bushes, climbed trees, and hid behind anything we could find, while the person counted in the dark, then set out to find us. I distinctly remember one night, I hid up in a tree, and the kid never found me. I was such a monkey. So much so, my mother used to call me μαϊμού (Greek for monkey).
So, Halloween was lots of fun with the whole neighborhood participating. One year while we lived on Rhein Main Air Base in Germany, my mom dressed in black, painted her face white, and took residence in a makeshift coffin in the lobby to our stairwell (apartment building), so that when children came in, she’d sit up in the coffin, both terrifying and surprising them before they could scramble to the first apartment’s door. But it was all in fun because everyone knew everyone.
So, it was in the past several months to year that I realized how important Halloween is because of its communal aspect. It was ruined in the mid 1980s and after due to sick people putting razor blades in apples, and other poisonous things in pieces of candy, followed by the disappearance of families’ cats (especially black ones) for other sick individuals who’d torture the poor creatures and kill them. When I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine lost her kitten Halloween night to some warped-minded teens who drowned her kitten in the local pool.
The communal aspect of Halloween splintered during and after this time out of fear and a new mistrust of fellow neighbors. I think this was also the time when privacy fences became popular. You no longer could see, wave, or converse with your neighbors while sitting in your backyard.
Back to my childhood memories when I recall community was strong. I remember with great joy the few weeks before Christmas, in the evenings, the faint but melodic voices of carolers outside our apartment on Rhein Main Air Base and off base housing in the suburbs of Virginia and Illinois at that time. I distinctly remember opening our third-story window at Rhein Main that overlooked the patch of cement below, and seeing a group of cheerful carolers, singing, despite the bitter cold evening. It made the coming of Christmas even more special.
But I’ve not seen any carolers since the one Christmastime at Fairchild Air Force Base back in either 2005 or 2006. It was both surprising and exciting to have encountered that, bringing a rush of sweet nostalgia through me.
Although there were people who didn’t celebrate Christmas in my neighborhoods growing up, they still seemed to appreciate the carolers and listened quietly with smiles. Caroling was another communal activity in our neighborhoods. I miss it.
I think I actually started realizing the closed up neighborhoods/housing units after we moved to Pennsylvania and lived in a rental home that sat on about a half acre of land with it partly fenced with criss-crossed logs in the backyard and open front yard. No privacy fences. Why? Because these homes were build in the late 1950s. There was so much more space between homes and you could see your neighbors out mowing their lawns, watering their flowers, filling their bird feeders. It was charming.
Before that time, as an adult, I’d believed in privacy fences, and keeping locked up in my house and didn’t make much of an effort to talk to our neighbors, except the ones right next door to us, like in Fountain, Colorado and Callaway, Florida. But besides those instances, there wasn’t much communal activities going on.
I also remember when I was a teen living in Fairfax, Virginia. We moved to the suburbs in a court/culdesac, and a few of the ladies from the houses next to us and a couple down from us actually knocked on our door. My mom opened it, and I watched curiously behind her, as the ladies welcomed us to the neighborhood and gave my mom a casserole dish of something home cooked.
At our court in Castle Pines North in Castle Rock, Colorado, in my last year of high school, the neighbors came together a few times in the summer for block parties. Don’t see those anymore.
We moved to Castle Rock, Colorado, October 11 of this year, and we’re in a nice neighborhood with large single-family homes close together, and paired homes (duplex/townhomes), in which we live. Obviously, we were here for Halloween. I went out and bought a moderate amount of candy, not sure if we’d have any children coming to visit our home, because the last two places we lived in Lancaster, PA, and West Roxbury, MA, we had zero children come around our neighborhood, which was, I must say, both surprising and disappointing.
Well, lo and behold, more than fifty precious children knocked on our door this year, asking for tricks or treats, and we had plenty of treats to give them. This experience brought back my childhood and the hope of community.
I walk this beautiful neighborhood and its nature trails as much as I can because I’m in my favorite state with its glorious Rockies towering on the horizon every day. And seeing children playing outside, climbing trees, riding bikes, skateboarding, riding their scooters, and congregating in their small front yards sparks the child in me and a wave of hope and joy wash over me.
Community is still here. I’d like to believe there are many other neighborhoods that mirror this one. Human interaction is needed so much these days, I’m cherishing this as long as I can.
What were your experiences in your communities growing up compared to now?