As I continue on the path of recuperation to care for my recently broken leg, I have a lot of time to think about a lot of things. I truly feel that one can have the advantages of “small-town community” within suburban sprawl if he wants it to happen.
I know a bit about growing up in a small town. When I was a kid, we lived six months each year on my mother’s family horse ranch in rural Oklahoma. The nearest town was 14 miles away. And even then, “town” was one traffic light, one lower school (grades 1-8), one high school, one grocer, one “druggist,” and one library. Everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t snitch a cigarette in the back of the hardware store with your buddy without someone tattle-taling to your Mom. You couldn’t have your eyes on a pair of boots in the western store without the store owner having “a chat” with your Dad. You weren’t really “from” there unless your grandparents were buried in the local cemetery. You always bought or traded everything you needed with your neighbors. It was just that kind of place. Everybody knew everybody, and there was a strong sense of “community belonging” and cohesion.
When someone was down on their luck, sick or injured, or someone died, all of the neighbors would rally around and offer help. True help — the kind you needed when things went wrong. They brought food, helped do housecleaning, provided childcare, did laundry, or whatever needed to be done. That is what neighbors in a small town do for each other, even to this day.
Some people love that kind of life. Some others do not. There are trade-offs. You have no privacy. You have no sense of individuality. It is very hard to come out and be accepted as a gay person, especially if the majority of the community residents are “Christian” (quotes on purpose.)
I began to live permanently within suburban sprawl, north and east of our nation’s capital, when I was ten years old, after my Dad was stationed permanently in Washington after working in Europe six months of the year for a long time. We lived in Maryland, which borders Washington, DC. We visited Oklahoma in the summers instead of half a year.
Almost one million residents call our county “home.” There are few defined cities. We ramble from one zip code to the next. There is a lot of history here, but you have to know where to look for it. Most people who live here came from somewhere else. I am among the few who can point to the local cemetery and show the graves of my parents and paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins….
It is easy to be anonymous among all of this sprawl. Rent an apartment or buy a house, then go to work, come home, go out to eat, make friends of co-workers who live in outlying suburbs. This is the common way of life for many of my neighbors. The anonymity happens due to the dearth of local connections. Some people like that. Personally, I don’t.
I have always felt that the small-town feeling of closeness to your neighbors is important. Therefore, throughout my life, I have worked hard to make my sprawling ‘burb a “home.” I have gotten involved in community life. I was elected to a non-partisan position that works on many community issues. I have gotten to know all of my neighbors, not just those on either side of my house. I have grown deeply involved in a large retirement community that is near where I live. This is where my “senior buds” and my aunt live. I’m over there all the time.
Over 40 years of local “community building” has resulted in my truly having a home where I live, with a casual and mature kind of tolerance. My partner is accepted completely, as I am — as gay men among the local residents. We are not the “token” gay couple by any means. Good thing about living around here is that most folks “live and let live.” I know my neighbors. I know their kids. I know the names of the regular employees at most of the local stores at which I shop (but can’t tell you the names of the barista at the Starbucks or the server at the local chain restaurants frequented by the yuppie set, ’cause I choose not to go there).
I can tell you the names of the cops on the local beats, and the firefighters at the local station, and the faculty in the local schools. I mean, this is my home. This is where I live. This is my community. This is MY LIFE.
Man, I’m so lucky to live in such a wonderful place. Rich with life, with diversity, with ideas, with acceptance, with community spirit. Both my roots and my boots are planted deep.
When I had my recent set-back in breaking the bone in my leg, my house has been a non-stop beehive of business — of neighbors getting to work to help out. It brings tears of joy to my eyes, and a song to my heart, to know that we can and we do have a strong, vibrant, local community because we have made it that way.
It is possible…even while living among suburban sprawl. It is what you make it to be. And I can show you the rich rewards that the investment of community-building has brought to me, and to my neighbors, friends, and senior buds.
Life is short: love where you live!