Near a bend in the Cumberland River, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, there sits a modest, blue house. My parents have lived in that little house since 1968 and they have seen changes to their community on a scale that in previous centuries would have been unthinkable. I lived there from 1975 until 1995 and even in that relatively short span of years I saw friends come and go, demographics shift, and education become dangerous. What happened? The same thing that is happening everywhere in America and beyond. The integrity of communities is destroyed as the people become rootless, extended and even nuclear families disintegrate, and the local is replaced with the federal and the corporate.
My street alone, the place I spent my childhood, is almost unrecognizable. I once knew all the neighbors and they knew me. Old Mr. Hogan with his white beard, lawn chair, and newspaper sat just across the street everyday on his front porch in the shade of an old maple, reading and watching. He could see the cross street from his porch and would warn us kids if a car was coming. Mr. Hogan is gone and so is the old maple, but that doesn’t matter now. Strangers live there now.
The Hessons, an old German couple, lived a few doors down and they had the only paved driveway on the block. They also had the best snacks and an ever-ready tire pump for our sagging bicycle tires. We’d all stop there at least once every week for a refill and a treat. Sometimes we’d let the air out of our tires just to get a Little Debbie pie, but that doesn’t matter now. The Hessons are gone and so is their tire pump. Strangers live there now.
A wrinkled woman I knew simply as “Nanny” lived right next door. She had the best Impressionist paintings on her walls and an old wooden telephone, the kind with the separate ear and mouth pieces. It didn’t work but I played with that antique phone countless times. She also had endless gallons of purple kool-aid for any of us kids who stopped by to play with the phone (it was famous). I still don’t know her actual name, but that doesn’t matter now. Nanny is gone and so is the old phone. Strangers live there now.
House after house and there is a similar story, but the stories are memories now. Gone are the roving packs of children on a summer day who’d ride from one end of the street to the other, back and forth all day long, stopping for a drink or even lunch at the nearest house, whoever its owner – and someone was always home to answer the door. The new neighbors are just not the same and they do not seem all that interested in being neighborly. Everyone is far too busy turning their own hamster wheel on the economy to be able to afford even these very lower-middle class homes.
Modest it is, but the old neighborhood is much nicer than the government housing many of the new folks managed to escape – and good for them. Unfortunately, they gave their old neighbors their address and these are the sort who visit in the middle of the night to empty a tool shed, steal a car, even force their way into a house or two. These are the sort who are also being bussed into the new, over-sized schools that were built to replace the small, local schools that were shut down in the name of progress. Is it any wonder that the new neighbors remain strangers?
Nostalgia. It is a painful word and going home can be just that. My old neighborhood is not special; this downward spiral is in full swing in countless small communities. This is not only a matter of demographics. Nor is this sad state solely a matter of economics or education. This is about the denigration of America itself. This is about the undermining of our very humanity. This is also something we can change. If you are lucky enough to have a home, take care of it. Speak to your neighbors. Stop chasing the almighty dollar around the clock and fix a dirty kid’s bike tire. Start acting like humans again. We can all do at least that.