During our first year of marriage, my husband and I lived in the ground floor apartment of a big, old, red-brick house. On either side of us were similar houses split into apartments, and across the street was a high-rise building. We woke up many times to drunken yelling from the college kids making their way home from the bars, or to the blue and red lights of cop cars responding to a call from across the street. We lived there for a year and the only neighbours we met (or really even saw) were the ones living in the other four apartments in the house.
A year later we bought our current home four blocks and a world away. It's quieter and cleaner and I have the strong sense that my neighbours are looking out for each other. At Christmas time we have a progressive potluck dinner with the street, with three different homes hosting appetizers, dinner, and dessert. A few weekends ago seven homes had garage sales, bringing us together as we mostly just traded goods with each other. There is a feeling of responsibility for our own homes and for the safety of each other. We are, even inadvertently, seeking shalom on our street.
There is a stark difference between these two places that we've lived. There are many factors that lead to this, but I believe one of the strongest aspects is that in our first apartment we and our neighbours were renting. We didn't see that place as a long-term home and didn't hold (legal) responsibility for the building and property of where we lived. We were consumers of our neighbourhood. On our current street, most homes are owner-occupied and there is a desire to maintain and better our surroundings. We are investing it in. It's not about whether one owns or rents a home though, as each person much choose how they will interact with their community.
In an exploratory paper on the culture of homelessness and homemaking (later expanded on in their book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement), Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh suggest that this difference between consuming and investing in our surroundings is growing in our culture as a whole. They see our education system (particularly higher education) as creating a culture of 'homelessness': by being so focused on upward mobility, it "produces career-oriented consumers who have no intimate knowledge of, or sense of commitment to, any place." They pull in the work of environmentalist David Orr who makes the distinction this way: a temporary occupant is a resident, while someone who dwells and invests in their environment is an inhabitant. A resident is a "temporary and rootless occupant," while an inhabitant cannot be separated from their surroundings, "without doing violence to both."
When Le Corbusier planned his vertical Radiant City of skyscrapers surrounded by gardens, he was not only planning the built environment, but a social utopia as well. As Jane Jacobs puts it, this involved "liberty from ordinary responsibility . . . where nobody, presumably, was going to have to be his brother's keeper any more. Nobody was going to have to struggle with plans of his own. Nobody was going to be tied down." While the Radiant City never came to be, we do see this social mentality pervading and shaping our culture. When individualism and status dominate our understanding of the good life, investing in our surroundings and caring for our brother is pushed off our radar.
But as I am experiencing on our street, and as Eric Jacobsen says in The Space Between, "Individual humans can't have shalom in the fullest sense of that word; only human communities can . . . Seeking shalom, then, necessarily means participating in one or more communities." As we seek the welfare of the city, simply being consumers of our surroundings is not enough. Whether it be in my neighbourhood, work place, church congregation, or family, I hope that my sense of responsibility, participation, and care is such that I could not be separated without leaving a hole in the community and in myself.