03 June 2007
sunday scribblings: town & country

Prompt #62: Town & Country

Like John (Cougar) Mellencamp, I was born in a small town, and I live in a small town, albeit on the other side of the world from my hometown. But in between, among other places, I also lived in the City of Brotherly Love for five years, just minutes from the Art Museum steps that Rocky made famous in 1976.

The city is only about a two hour drive from my hometown, but it might as well be a world away for the differences. Indeed, many from my area hold great disdain for the city--my grandfather, who spent much of his life in and around there for work, called it "Filthy-delphia." But I chose it anyway when it came time for law school, mostly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

And you know what? This small town girl rather enjoyed big city life. It's just so convenient to have anything you could possibly want never too far away--art, history, literature, every religion and culture imaginable, ethnic food, professional sports, and so much more.

Then there's the not so great parts, general lack of cleanliness was my biggest complaint especially when public transportation was involved. The fact that the smell of human urine makes me think of the Broad Street subway line cannot be underestimated.

But more than that, I just never really felt at home there. I loved my living quarters, especially the second of my two Philly homes, located on this street:


Cute eh? Many inhabitants were professionals and graduate students, and we had neighborhood schools, churches, bars, restaurants, and shops that many of us frequented while politely exchanging hellos, but that was the extent of it. Indeed, the area was set up perfectly to be a neighborhood where we could create a little pocket of understanding and warmth. But it never happened. Not for me anyway.

My neighbors, with whom we shared a small, locked entryway, were a couple with two small children. When our landlords described them, I thought of offering babysitting services. That idea was crushed the first time we crossed paths in the backyard. I introduced myself and asked some questions, but the mother quickly cut me off and rustled the girls inside. Hint taken. Nearly every morning we set off at the same time but none of them ever even glanced at me as they struggled to get everyone in their respective cars during the morning routine.

In fact, the only time I ever entered their home was to inquire whether they had picked up a package of mine from the entryway by mistake as the postman assured me he had left it there. They said they didn't, but I sure hope they enjoyed that first edition Charles Dickens I had ordered from eBay because I have a hunch as to what really happened.

So maybe I was unlucky with the neighbors themselves, but then every time I went back to my hometown to visit, something became clearer and clearer. The idyllic neighborhood life of my youth doesn't exist there anymore either. As the older generation has died off, new families have moved in, and they aren't the children and grandchildren of the area; indeed, many are from larger cities.

And so there are fewer nightly chats from porch to porch, fewer pies and cakes traded across backyards, and, I imagine, fewer solid neighborly relationships. Whenever I've been home, it's like being on the empty set of an old favorite sitcom--I recognize all the scenery and memories come at me from all angles, but there's nothing going on that really makes me feel like I used to.

Why is that? Is the idea of community threatening to an individualist lifestyle? Is this a good thing? Can we get it back? Do we want to?

I don't have answers to these questions, but on a personal level, one of the things I love best about where I live now is the neighborhood feel. All of those old-fashioned relationships are still intact, and indeed, I've been accepted into the fold. We have a grocer, a tobacconist, a pharmacist, a butcher, and two bars, and they all know what I want before I do.

Sure sometimes it's a bit smothering when eyes are peeking out of windows to see where you're going and who you're going with--many times they'll just flat out ask as they're certainly not shy (I've learned to be vague in my answers!). And, of course, there's the "news sure travels fast" phenomenon, but if you're selective about who you tell things to, it's less of a problem.

Some people like the anonymity of city life, and I have to admit, every now and again, it wouldn't be such a bad thing. But I've had it both ways, and I have to say, I just feel at home here, and that's the most important thing.

Or, as Mellencamp said, "my bed is in a small town, and that's good enough for me."

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40 Comments:

Blogger Erin said...

I'm a small town girl through and through. I love the sense of community we have with our new neighbors. We all moved into a new development at the same time. Now we hang out almost every weekend. Trade food back and forth, have impromptu dinners together. Our kids play together and we have our evening walks together. It's wonderful. I would never survive in a big city for more than a holiday : )

Blogger Giulia said...

Imagine having had your eye fiasco that you had a couple months back, while living in Philly. Something tells me you wouldn't have been treated the same there as you did here. There is definitely a HUGE difference in the sense of community bond.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some "thinkers" say technology increases the preference of individualism over the community.

Personally, I think it has a lot more to do with higher education. More people are educated as to the dangers of the world and also feel they are above "the little guy" from the old neighborhood.

Glad you're happy with the life you chose. Everyone deserves that.

Blogger Texas Espresso said...

I grew up in a larger town but have noticed that neighborhoods aren't nearly as friendly as they used to be. We knew all of our neighbors (and still do!) but in my neighborhood, I couldn't even tell you their names. we say hello and thats it. I don't like it but like you, have gotten the point. People aren't interested in developing a relationship. I can't really figure out why either unless it's just a complete and total lack of trust nowadays.?

I am looking forward to now experiencing a small town. =)

Anonymous G said...

I've not lived in a true "neighborhood" since I was 10 years old and I have always missed it. After reading your post I am hopeful that I will find that once again in Italy.

Thanks: )

Blogger Wendy said...

This is something I've thought about many times.
I bought my first house last June. Having moved around a lot in previous years I was very excited about creating a home for myself. And I have. The only disappointment has been that I've (so far) been unable to make any real friends in this area.
You really are a beautiful writer.

Anonymous Deb G said...

For the last couple hours I've had "Small Town" stuck in my head : )

I've lived in several city and small town neighborhoods and have had both experiences, where I didn't know anyone and where I knew lots of neighbors. I think it has a lot to do with the pace of life in the USA and luck of the draw. Getting a puppy and going for walks breaks down lots of barriers. Actually, walking the dog, no matter what the age of the dog, helps a lot in getting to know neighbors.

Blogger Kali said...

I grew up in a small town, so I know exactly the feeling you're describing. It brings back so many wonderful childhood memories!

Since I've been an adult, I live in a city (albeit a small city, only about 200,000 people). I enjoy visiting my hometown, but I've grown so accustomed to all the conveniences of city life that I don't know if I could live in a small town again!

Of course, given the chance to live in a small town in Italy, I'm sure I could adjust.... :-)

Blogger Lisa Milton said...

I grew up in small town as well. In fact, I introduced myself to a woman at church and learned she was a teacher at my jr. high. I did enjoy the anonymity in a new small town, before anyone knew me and where I came from.

But community is priceless. It gives you roots.

Blogger Tammy said...

Very good observations here. People are not very open to strangers no matter where you live. Makes me sad.

Blogger sarala said...

Very nice piece. I like the anonymity of cities but it is strange not having relationships with the neighbors. Since I'm a bit shy, I don't like other people knowing my business even if it is that I'm in the mood to indulge in some junk food today.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am a small town girl. I remember what it was like growing up...hearing the women of the neighborhood exchanging conversations on the back porches, the peeking out of the front windows when a car pulled up and a door opened and closed. It's a really shame how some "neighborhoods" exist this days. I realize how fortunate I am now. We all moved into a new development 3 years ago. We exhange dinners, desserts, hang out on the weekends, and even have a community block party every year. This move of mine has been one of the best things in my life. I love your scribblings!

Blogger Marmite Breath said...

Our neighbourhood growing up was very close knit--and then when we moved to the States, hardly anybody talked to eachother in the street.

Here in the midwest, we talk to our neighbours, but they're from the South. Our "native" neighbours are more reticent. I think it would be great to live like we did as kids, where the ties were close, but I'm afraid it's just not like that anymore.

Blogger Cordia Amant said...

I've lived in big cities and close-knit medium size communities, though never in a small town. Like you, I've come to enjoy both. But for building a life and home, I'd prefer the comfort of a community and knowing my neighbors.

Good thoughts Sognatrice, I like this one a lot.
I've lived in both small towns and big cities... my folks were divorced and I had one in San Francisco, and one in Wyoming, so I grew up in both places. Let's talk about culture shock. I always say that makes me a cultured hick.
Nevertheless... I am going to cheat on this one and say that I currently live in both. Denver is by no means a small town, but conversely, it isn't a huge city either. In my immediate neighborhood, I am well known and I like it. If I want to go more than 3 miles from my place though, I can disappear instantly and I like that too. A bit more annonymity.

You do make the small town ideal sound rather nice, and you mention the points that I enjoy and miss about the small towns I have known. Thanks for the warm fuzzy/yikes memories, they are good!!

Scarlett

Blogger Gil said...

Thank you for another beautiful piece. If I could write like you I wouldn't have become a "bean counter". On the other hand I can remember life in NYC when neighbors talked and shared.

I was raised in a small town and moved to the city instead. I wouldn't go back.

Anonymous bella said...

My dad still lives in the house we grew up in as kids. Visiting is always a bittersweet situation. Gone are the neighbors and their kids who were such an integral part of my childhood and in their place new families and new kids. The few remaining couples from my time there are so old they hardly come outside.
But I am thankful for such a beautiful experience growing up in a tight community. Now I'm living in my own little neighborhood and hopefully I can offer my daughter a little bit of what I had as a kid.
This was a great Sunday Scribble!! I enjoyed it.

Blogger Figs Olives Wine said...

I can't tell you how much I fret about all this! I was actually born in Philly, but when I was 3, we moved to a fishing village of 1000 in Scotland - complete with butcher, baker, fishmonger, et al. And now I've been living in NYC for 12 years...lots of extremes here.

Yes, there's the near-total loss of privacy, and yes, I'm sure that community in whatever commutable town we move to a few years from now will not be the same as it was in the 70s and 80s over in Scotland, but I choose small town for my (future) kids.

I was at a NY bridal shower yesterday, and the 9 year old flower girl was wearing a Versace dress. That's reason enough for me right there!

Blogger Figs Olives Wine said...

PS. Great. Now I've got that song stuck in my head. Drat!

Blogger Fran said...

I loved this post! This is a subject that I can totally relate to. My husband and I grew up in a town that was so small it didn't even have a traffic light! Everyone in the county went to the same high school. You knew everyone and everyone knew you. Of course I couldn't wait to move to a big city. And Atlanta was a great place for a young adult to explore and enjoy. After we married and had children, we moved many times. Some of the places were large, but most were very small. We totally prefer small towns. They are by and far the best place to raise a family. Also, we always felt like we were a member of bigger family there. And yes, sometimes people feel like everybody knows your business. But there are times in your life where you are glad that everyone knows your business. People have reached out to my family and embraced us in a small town in good times and bad.

Thanks again for bringing back some memories!

Blogger jennifer said...

I read this post this morning and have been thinking about it all day. I've always coveted my anonymity. I consider my strange desire to be alone one of my major defects. I also live in a town where everyone knows me, and my children call the man behind the bakery counter by name, and where everyone else calls out "piccolo americano!" when they pass by. And I really love that for them, but for me it's so unnerving to have everyone else know my business... quite a juxtaposition. As I said, your post got me thinking!

Blogger gautami tripathy said...

I do love the anonymity of city life.
Infact one can build bonds there too butfor that it needs interaction.

You post set me thinking though!

Blogger Louise said...

Well written... I live in a small town where we visit with our neighbors, have BBQ's together and bring over cookies and meals when someone isn't well or just had a baby....I love it. I am thankful that my children will have the memories of the small town life!

Blogger jason evans said...

It really is amazing how Philadelphia is not considered to be in Pennsylvania by the rest of the state. I grew up in Johnstown, and that's certainly how we felt. Now that I'm sitting here working there, it seems kind of funny. I straddle both worlds.

Anonymous Sara said...

I've lived in enormous cities, distantly suburban towns, the country, and almost wilderness. My favorite is what I came from, too, only a little smaller and kinder.

I grew up in a suburban city on a hill by the ocean with lots of open space and places you could walk and bike to, but also kind of snooty and competitive. It was ruined before I left by overzealous building up and paving over of all those delicious open spaces. Last I saw (20+ years ago), it looked like the rest of Southern California, all strip malls and condos, only still on a hill by the ocean.

I now live in a small town three or four suburbs outside of Boston (depending on where you put the line delineating "urban agglomeration" as distinct from "suburban town"). It has its snooty and competitive aspects, but it is mostly friendly (for New England) and rather countrified, even though a significant sector are very wealthy and ridiculously privileged, and even though we have some definite "McMansion creep" going on. (Someday I will do a "real vs. fake" architectural photo essay to illustrate what I mean by that.)

I adore it. I adore having everything I love best in walking or cycling distance of my house, but also a train that goes into the city if there's something there worth going to see. Because it's New England, we are barely able to smile and greet each other many days, so the gossip thing is less of an issue unless you've lived here a looong time and have become more a part of the fabric of the place than we foreigners. Here, if people are gossiping about you, it might take you a very long time to find out.

Blogger sognatrice said...

Erin, I'm happy that you were able to create a new community for your family; moving into a new place can be rough, but it seems everything fell into place for you...although surely you had to make some effort as well :)

Giulia, yes, I keep thinking about the eye thing too. People might have looked at me strangely in Philly, but I certainly wouldn't have been the talk of the town (for better or worse).

Anonymous, interesting. I think there is a strong move toward individualism these days, and I can also see your point about higher education. Some of that may also be economical, where the highly educated don't want to move back to humble roots. I did something completely strange according to that theory: I moved from one depressed small town in America to become reasonably highly educated and then transferred to an even more depressed small town in Italy. It's all very interesting to me, though, social migration and whatnot.

TexasEspresso, life in small town Italy is even more exaggerated than what I experienced in America, but I've found that as an outsider, I can get away with guarding my privacy a little more than others--I call it pulling la carta americana ;)

G, I hope you find it too; I think for those of us that crave and enjoy community, Italy is the perfect place to find it.

Wendy, thank you so much for your kind words, and I do hope you'll make some friends soon. It takes some effort no matter where you are, so get out there and mingle ;)

Deb G, sorry about that (the song in your head). You're *so* right about walking the dog! It's a fabulous icebreaker (and great exercise for you and the doggie, of course).

Kali, I think it's good to have all different kind of living experiences because sometimes we can surprise ourselves with what we enjoy. I actually liked living in a city much more than I ever thought I would, and I'm so glad I did it.

Lisa, I have to admit, I don't think I could live in *my* small town at this point--that would be too suffocating. But being the newcomer, well, that's kind of the best of both worlds...until you get better known, of course ;)

Tammy, thank you, and it makes me sad too. I'm probably considered strange because I'm always asking people where they're from and whatnot when I realize they aren't from here. Oh well.

Sarala, thanks. I'm pretty shy as well, and maybe that's why a bigger place isn't a good fit for me--it would require just too much effort on my part to get out there and meet people. On the other hand, I really don't like people all up in my business either, so it's a tough balance to maintain. Like I said, I'm very choosy about who I tell things to (to put it mildly).

Anonymous, I'm glad you like my scribblings and also that you've found a new little community. It does sound like you are quite lucky :)

Marmite Breath, that's kind of sad. I remember running in and out of my neighbors' houses like they were my own; I hope my children (who don't yet exist) would have a similar comfort level with those around us.

Cordia, yes, I agree. For me, it comes down to what I'd prefer my children experience, and it's definitely life in a slower paced, close knit community. We can always visit the city, right?

Scarlett, oh my! Talk about two different worlds! Denver always seemed like a nice compromise to me as well; glad you like it so much there :)

Gil, what kind words, thank you. Those old neighborhoods really were something; such a shame that they've changed so much.

Freelance Cynic, I have to say that most of the people I know from my hometown that moved away and into cities feel exactly the same. I think for many, small town life is just too stifling. In fact, I've been toying with the idea of writing a "town & country part II" in which I discuss another lyric from JCM's song "Small Town": "where the people let me be just what I wanna be." Nice thought, but is it true? Not in my experience.

Bella, my dad lives in my childhood home too! Just as you said, all those neighbors I remember are gone or sickly, and it's just a completely different experience. Anyway, I hope your daughter will appreciate what you're building for her someday :)

Figs, sorry about the song, but Versace? Really? Wow. I don't know what to say about that. I'm sure you'll be very happy in small town Scotland (can I visit?).

Fran, I agree that sometimes you're happy when everyone knows your business. Mostly I'm thinking of when bad things happen and people are able to show they care without you're having to spell everything out.

Jennifer, believe me, you're not alone in your strange desire to be, well, alone. I'm already an odd duck around here since I actually like alone time to read, draw, write, whatever...like I said above in the comments, I get a way with a lot of this by using the "I'm an American" excuse. I do like, though, that my (future) kids would be able to enjoy the sense of community--and I do wonder whether they'll like alone time too. You have me thinking as well ;)

Gautami, glad you enjoyed the post; anonymity isn't always a bad thing :)

Louise, thank you. It's such a personal preference on where to build a life; I hope that we all are comfortable with our choices :)

Jason, I always felt like *such* an outsider in Philly. I don't know if you're around people from there or other transplants, but you can see how it really is a very small city and this one went to school with that one, this one married that one's sister, etc. I straddled both worlds for a while as well and enjoyed it even, but I certainly don't regret leaving. Sorry Philly lovers ;)

Blogger sognatrice said...

Sara, I'm looking forward to that photo essay! One of my friends who also lives outside of Boston has told me about some towns where newcomers simply are never accepted; so glad yours isn't like that. Hopefully the McMansion creep slows and stops and leaves your corner of the world charming and countrified.

I can't lie though--I wouldn't mind having a major city just a short train ride away.

Wow this post is something I think about alot. It's one of the reasons I'm moving to Italy.

I was born in NYC but we moved to a small suburb when I was in elementary school. Very small town but 13 miles outside a major city. We knew all our neighbors.

When I moved back to NYC 10 years ago, I again knew all my neighbors and our doormen. I babysat for one of my neigbors when their nanny had a family emergency. New Yorkers have a rep for being rude but everytime I was in the laundry room or getting my mail other residents of the building would chit chat.

Now I live in Los Angeles. My next door neighbors barely grunt hello. There is no sense of community at all in my area.

When I visit my parents it's the opposite extreme. Everyone knows everyone and everything about each other in their small village. I know it can be annoying to have people all up in your business but I miss being part of a community.

Blogger goodthomas said...

I share your small town ideals, sensibility. I also share your sense of groove on moving to a big city and enjoying the culture, the people, the art, the bookstores, the potential of such a city.

I look forward to moving to a small town in Italy one day.

Blogger Shelby said...

great post!

Anonymous Nora said...

I was born (and continue to live) in a large city (Sydney, Australia) but long for a small town experience - especially when I'm stuck in traffic!! Great post. :)

Blogger Crafty Green Poet said...

I think individualism is damaging community. I'm glad to live in a small city where there are still neighbourhoods where people know each other, the local sandwich shops know my favourites etc.

Blogger Paolo said...

I am guessing Rittenhouse Square, but that's kind of a shot in the dark since that's where most non-native-Philadelphians come to live...

Maybe West Philly, but the sidewalks seem too narrow.

Anonymous Friend said...

My English not so good, sorry, but i like yours " me , not me". You are wanderfull person, i would be your friend , and would have a lot in common. But the main qiestion for you- are you meet Jesus? I mean real Jesus? If you meet Him and let Him rule over your life- in this case you going to be real you! He is wonderfull Savior! Jast let Him come in your life! You never be sorry about this.Jesus said: " If I am not in a fierst place in your life- then you don't have Me at all".

I really think that there is a quality of that small-town-ness missing in most of America. I think that is why I stayed in New England for so long - people know you, you can be a regular somewhere, people are friendly, etc.
Now that I am in Florida, I feel like I am in a huge city with none of the charms...so I guess I am still looking for that place where I belong. I am still looking for HOME.

Blogger Poppy Fields said...

You've highlighted well a disappearing feeling of closeness we once felt living in a small town.

Blogger sognatrice said...

NYC, I think it's the worst for those of us who have had the sense of community and long for it; I hope you find it again :)

gt, and we look forward to having you! Will you be my neighbor in Sicily per chance?

Shelby, thanks!

Nora, yes, city annoyances can definitely bring out nostalgia for small town life...and on the flip side, small town annoyances (the grapevine!) can bring out nostalgia for city life. We just have to hope for some balance, I think.

CGP, I think you're lucky too. I really wish I could've had that feeling in Philadelphia b/c then I think it'd be just perfect.

Paolo, Art Museum area, 22nd and Fairmount. Actually I was on Wallace Street, which is one of those tiny streets in between the bus/subway stops ;) I was mere steps from Eastern State Penitentiary, and I visited many times (for those who don't know, it's not an operating prison anymore).

Friend, thank you for your comment and your concern; Jesus and I are on lovely terms, thanks.

Jenn, I hope you find what you're looking for; I think it takes a while no matter where you are though, so we all have to be a little patient.

Poppy, thank you. I hope that by all of us remembering it, we can do our parts to recreate it in our own communities--but it's a lot of work these days.

Blogger Molly said...

This is lovely!

Blogger sognatrice said...

Thanks Molly :)

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