Looking for a New Neighborhood

It’s rare, but it happens: the advice offered in a “free e-newsletter” turns out to be valuable, thought-provoking advice. In the instance to which I am referring, it was nothing earth-shattering, but decent, well-conceived advice. I will give credit where credit is due. The free newsletter came through an email I received from Trulia.com, the online real estate resource I’ve been using to look for homes. I received an email from Trulia yesterday.  The subject line read: “4 Ways to Find Your Perfect Neighborhood.” In the body of the message was a section entitled “4 Questions To Surface the Best Neighborhood for You.” I clicked on the link, which took me to a Trulia blog post written by Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a broker in San Francisco.

The four questions Nelson suggests asking are questions to which I want answers before I decide where to live.  They are not secret questions I would not have thought of on my own.  But they are questions that can get lost in the house-hunting process because there are so many other questions to ask.  And the answers to these questions are SO important to ensuring the move you make is the right move, to the right neighborhood.   My wife and I have been considering the questions Nelson asks, but not quite as explicitly as Nelson asks them.  But, having read the post, we will frame the questions more directly.

So, what are the questions?  Well, I’ve linked to the article, above, so you can read her words for yourself, but here’s a brief summary:

  1. What do people around here like to do in their spare time?  The answers, or lack thereof, can reveal a lot about the level of interaction people in the neighborhood have with their neighbors.
  2. What do we want our family’s “ecosystem” to look and feel like? The level of activity, proximity to personally important amenities, and other such issues are probably equally as important as the specific house.
  3. What do I need to know about this neighborhood that I’m not asking…what is not obvious?  This is a question to ask of the real estate agent or someone else quite knowledgeable of the area.  You can get a better feel of the area by asking this open-ended question.
  4. Are there any common issues you frequently see with homes in this area?In her article, Nelson gives examples in her neighborhood: clay soils and the settling associated with them and bridge driveways that must be replaced every 20 or 30 years.

I have reached the conclusion that what we want and what is available at prices we can afford are mutually exclusive.  So, there will be compromise, perhaps difficult and painful compromise.  But we need a starting place.  So, I create in my mind the ideal setting for my home.

My ideal home would be quite near a sheer cliff, with a clear view of the ocean from every room.  Below, the crash of the ocean’s waves against the base of the cliff would be thunderous and jarring.  The nearest neighbors would be half a mile away, down the lonely country lane that leads to a vibrant small town just three-quarters-of-a-mile further.

Fifty yards from the road, on one side of the lane, I would see the edge of a thick, natural forest, a  mix of monstrously tall hardwoods and majestic conifers. On the other side of the lane are open, slightly rolling hills of soft grass.  In the distance, I would see a few dots on those grassy slopes, sheep and cattle I think.  The air would feel fresh and clean.  I would smell hints of pine and grass and the sea in the air.

Most of the exceedingly limited traffic on the lane would be my neighbors and my wife and I, either walking or riding bicycles.  On those occasions when we had a distance to go, we’d either take a scooter or the car that, though very small, almost fills the width of the lane.

The town would be a sanctuary for artists and artisans.  The place would be alive with the workshops of glass-blowers and potters, woodcarvers and blacksmiths, cheese makers and brewers, bakers and vintners.  Local farmers would pull their carts and wagons behind their tractors, driving to town daily with fresh fruits and vegetables.  The dairy farmers would bring milk.

Most of the traffic in the town would be pedestrian, though it would be common for smaller delivery trucks to share the narrow streets and there would be a smattering of small cars among the bicycles and scooters on the streets.  The place would be busy, but busy in a relaxed, productive, soothing way.  And if even that productive and joyful buzzing became too taxing, it would be easy to get away from it by stopping in at one of the dozens of pubs, each of which had its own unique environment built around its specialty drinks and foodstuffs and, in many cases, the ethnicity of the proprietors.

Drawn by the openness of its populace, people from around the globe would flock to the village to make new lives for themselves, bringing with them their customs, the foods, and their art.  The diversity of the town would be among its most gratifying attributes, illustrating as it would the capacity for people of all backgrounds and beliefs and world views to live harmoniously in close quarters.

On any given day, on the large village square, spontaneous gatherings would take place. One might be a group of people interested in photography, another could be people who want to speak and hear poetry, and yet another might be people who want to talk and learn about celestial constellations and debate theories of the speed with which the universe is expanding.  There might be groups of people interested in geology, gathering at the square in preparation for a trek to the coastal cliffs to examine their hundreds of layers of exposed rock.  Old men playing dominoes at tables around the perimeter of the square would remind me of my childhood.  Back the, I’d watch games of dominoes being played on card tables placed in covered walkways in front of downtown stores in small-town south Texas when I’d accompany my dad on his visits to lumberyards that were his customers.

All of these groups would be welcoming and open.  Participation would ebb and flow according to individuals’ interests and their schedules.  There would never be any reason to hesitate joining one of them because everyone would make a point to welcome newcomers.

The entire village, and my place a mile or so out of town, and all the other places like mine nearby, would be like my fantasy “third place,” the magical spot in which community becomes more than the people and places around you…you become part of it!  Today’s popular vision of the 1950s as a gentler, sweeter, more caring time than today would come rushing toward reality in this setting!  The imagined innocence of that time would return, but this time it would be real!  Goodness would fill the land.  All would be right with the world.

My gentle, bucolic setting goes all helter-skelter when the shepherds and beef ranchers and local fishermen come into the picture.  Suddenly, blood and viscera and fins and flesh must be discarded.  And facing the reality that the cattle and goats and sheep and fish must be slaughtered in order for us to eat them casts a pall over these scenes of sweetness.

If that’s not enough, we read of research that demonstrates plants react to external stimuli, suggesting that preparing our salads and vegetable soups is not necessarily the peaceful endeavors we have believed them to be.  Maybe plants can feel pain! Our innocence may vaporize in an instant!

As these unpleasant thoughts begin to claw at my concept of the ideal neighborhood, even more polycephalic beasts emerge, each new and troubling practicality becoming a monstrous head with which I must deal.  Where does the electrical power come from and how is it generated and distributed?  What about the materials we use…steel, wood, fuel? And sewage? How is it handled and how do we ensure it does not ruin this lovely environment? Do we have internet?  Do we need it?  My little utopian must use money, right?  Or will it be a barter economy?  Or will be freely share what we create?

Where the hell did my utopian dream go?!  How did my quest for a soft, semi-rural setting turn into a gut-wrenching acknowledgement that my fairy-tale neighborhood does not, cannot, exist?

For an answer, read this link that my friend, Robin, left for me in her comments on one of my posts a couple of days ago.   Seriously, read the link.  It’s very, very long, so set aside a good half hour to read it.  You will be glad you did.  And when you finish, you will have a different perspective on the neighborhood.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes "Intimacy is never wrong. It can be awkward, it can be unsettling, it can feel dangerous, it can seem out of place, but it’s never wrong."― John Swinburn
This entry was posted in Housiing, Philosophy, Population, Third Place. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Looking for a New Neighborhood

  1. Tara, we need luck. I was taken aback by the idea that “progress traps” coincided with the end of the hunter-gatherer phase, too…”progress” breeds massive, reverberating echoes of layer after layer of unintended consequences.

  2. Tara Crowley says:

    I read the Dark Ecology article — all of it. Wow. The concept of “Progress Traps” is familiar to me from working in a large university: an issue would arise, a solution would be proposed and implemented, thus creating more and more confusing regulation. But it’s remarkable to think of Progress Traps beginning with Paleolethic man’s hunting successes. We’ve been doing it to ourselves for a very long time.

    Life and the future is confusing the hell out of me. Good luck to us all.

  3. Juan, you are wildly insightful, my friend! It DOES work! It asks the right questions about online environments, too. But aren’t we looking for the same thing, regardless of where we’re looking? We want people with whom we’re comfortable, we want an environment that feeds our senses and our soul in ways that nourish our happiness, we want safety and protection from the unknown and unwanted.

    I’d like to say it WAS wonderfully genius…that it was my brilliant mind that crossed the boundaries to make metaphorical comparisons. But it was you, my friend, who made that massive leap. You recognized, before I did, that we’re looking for the same things online that we’re looking for in the physical world.

    My concern, of course, is that what we’re looking for cannot be found. Did you read my entire post? I thought someone would comment about the bizarre transition from pragmatism to fantasy; but I thought wrong! Ha!

  4. Juan says:

    This is weird. When I first perused the post, I was still under the impression that we were speaking of online environments — like Facebook or blogs. I thought it wonderfully genius that we were metaphorically reviewing online environments as neighborhoods — like Robin’s take on “campfires,” and that you — like myself — were looking for such a good neighborhood or campfire.

    Ah, but then re-reading realized we were talking about REAL property.

    Consider Trulia’s criteria as metaphorical, and as one for online people searching for a good blog site…LOL, John….I tell you it works!

    1. What do people around here like to do in their spare time? The answers, or lack thereof, can reveal a lot about the level of interaction people in the neighborhood have with their neighbors.
    2. What do we want our family’s “ecosystem” to look and feel like? The level of activity, proximity to personally important amenities, and other such issues are probably equally as important as the specific house.
    3. What do I need to know about this neighborhood that I’m not asking…what is not obvious? This is a question to ask of the real estate agent or someone else quite knowledgeable of the area. You can get a better feel of the area by asking this open-ended question.
    4. Are there any common issues you frequently see with homes in this area?In her article, Nelson gives examples in her neighborhood: clay soils and the settling associated with them and bridge driveways that must be replaced every 20 or 30 years.

    Love you, my Man!

    Frankly, it’s not where you live….it’s how and what you live.

  5. The article to which I linked has the answer, T. 😉

  6. Teresa says:

    Well, what occurs to me right off the bat is who are you going to ask?

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