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Neighbors without a fence

Neighborliness, as the tale of the Good Samaritan makes plain, isn't so much a function of physical proximity as of fellow-feeling. The sense of neighborhood, on the other hand, does have its distinct geographical flavor -- a dependence on locality -- even while retaining more than a semantic tie with "neighborliness" per se.

Conventional wisdom has it that both neighborhoods and "good neighboring" are essentially functions of the village and small town, rather than of the city. Current belief also has it that -- alas -- both neighborliness and the sense of neighborhood are fading fast from their very strongholds across the American landscape. The disappearance of the neighborhood grocer and barber, the neighborhood bakery and ice cream parlour, is often taken as a sign of "citification" --small town life. As these neighborhood services move out of people-places into little ghettos of their own -- better known as shopping centers and malls -- they seem to take away with them one of the pleasures of an earlier day.

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As one who grew up in a small town in mid-America, I understand the sense of loss; but as one who now lives in New York City, I've made a discovery: not only the sense of neighborhood, but neighborliness itself, are alive and well in the most unexpected places. Let me take each of them in turn, and show what I mean.

During my childhood, the "neighborhood," in a geographic sense, was defined by traveling on foot. The neighborhood store was one we walked to, as was the neighborhood movie theatre. Within a few blocks of home were one or more of the various services which daily life required. No one needed an automobile to get a haircut, a candy bar, or milk and bread.

But the transformation of American society into a nation of car-owners did away with the geography of neighborhoods by taking us off our feet. At first, this meant an enlarged sense of freedom and choice, a wider range of mobility. But little by little the old "neighborhood" disappeared as one after another corner merchant went out of business. There was not more sense of a foot-powered center, just of the auto-powered periphery.

So it has been with some sense of surprise and no small pleasure I find the old ideal of the neighborhood -- defined by life on foot -- still thriving in that biggest of cities, New York. From my apartment I can walk to the post office, the bank, the stationer, half a dozen grocers and decent restaurants, even some bookstores and movie theatres.

In the city the car is not only unnecessary, it's a positive inconvenience. Getting back to walking is a nice return to childhood, in a way. At the same time -- as gasoline gets scarcer and more expensive, ungluing the very foundations of suburbia -- life on foot also gives one a sense of living in the vanguard. Marching out front, as it were. The wider world is still there, of course, but one reaches it by means of public transportation, not by means of a station wagon.

Which brings me to the other half of my discovery, the sense of neighborliness. If neighborliness lives on even in my home town, I know of neighbors there who would be astonished to learn it also survives amid the hustle and bustle of New York. Adn doubtless in other major cities as well.

When I first arrived here, for instance, I recall waiting for a bus one Sunday afternoon. For some reason it was slow in coming, but the wait was more than worth it. A lady in her 90's who shared the busstop with me got to talking about the 70 years of her life in the city -- her career as a musician and music teacher, her joy in still getting out and around to enjoy things. We never exchanged names, but we got in a good deal of neighborliness -- back fence or no back fence -- before that bus came along.

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Another incident, just days ago, drove home the neighborliness of New York even more graphically, this time on the subway, of all places.

A young black musician, burdened with two guitars, a blue plastic travel bag, and a paper sack full of clothes and oddments, got on the subway I was riding on my way to a Lincoln Center concert. As the car doors closed behind him they caught on a music stand sticking out of the sack. The sack ripped, and sweaters , belts, shoes, shirts, and trousers tumbled to the floor. Trying to gather them up while holding on to all his other belongings was getting the best of him.

Others in the subway car looked on for a bit, and then a lady bent down to help him. Sho rolled up a couple of shirts tightly, stuffing them into the blue plastic bag where he had already lodged the shoes. While he trucked belts into a pouch on one of his instrument cases, a second woman began taking a few groceries out of a paper bag she was carrying. Clutching these in her arms she handed him the bag, saying, "You need this more than I do."

With that, still a third passenger removed a newspaper from a small plastic sack which was otherwise empty, tucked the paper under her arm, and handed her bag along to the woman with the armload of groceries. The fellow was being helped to his feet as the train arrived at the Lincoln Center stop. As I stepped off the car, someone handed him his freshly-filled paper sack, saying, "Hold it under your arm like this," tucking it in securely.

The door closed behind me; I didn't get to see how his journey ended. I imagine he got where he was going without further mishap. There certainly seemed to be plenty of people willing to help.

A hurtling subway is probably no one's idea of a neighborhood, of course, but the neighborliness aboard the car that evening was unmistakable -- even in a hole in the ground, under the darkening streets of New York, the most surprising assemblage of little neighborhoods anybody ever put together could come to roost.


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