One little neighborhood
In a little neighborhood in New York - actually a single block in the midst of the great city - we have been fighting, my neighbors and I, to maintain such simple amenities as air and light, city services that are not impossibly overburdened, transportation facilities not crowded to the point of being inhuman. It doesn't seem like a very big fight, at least in comparison with some of those that are now threatening the world. Yet I have a feeling that not to take a stand on these neighborhood matters is in some measure to prejudice the outcome of much larger and seemingly more important struggles.
For more than thirty years my wife and I have lived in this particular block. Here we have raised our three sons, who now return to it on family occasions with a real sense of coming home. In the midst of the world's flux and change, we have seen this small piece of the city remain relatively stable. At least a few of our neighbors have lived here as long, and some longer; the shops along the nearby avenue are still, in several cases, under the management of men and women whom we knew when we first settled here. It would be unrealistic to suppose that nothing will change now or in the near future. But it is not unrealistic, it seems to me, to work together as friends and neighbors to see whether change, when it does come, cannot preserve some of the values and some of the civic agreeableness long familiar to us all.
Sunlight in one's garden would seem a fundamental human right; indeed I understand that in England (where the sun does not appear too often) one may not be deprived of it by the actions of a nearby landholder. Similarly, freedom from gusty downblasts, miniature tornadoes set in motion by an adjacent tower, should be a small thing to ask. Yet sunlight and quiet air are in jeopardy where we live. New buildings more than three hundred feet in height are being planned all around us. Not fifty feet from where I write, on a piece of land eighteen feet in width, an ambitious entrepreneur, taking advantage of technological progress and prevailing high rents, is prepared to erect a sliver of a building thirty stories high! I marvel at his audacity; and then with my neighbors I resolve to combat such a monstrous absurdity.
What we are asking, simply stated, is that the city authorities make a reasonable study of the impact of all the projected building projects upon the surrounding urban environment. How will they affect light and air, the delivery of such elementary services as garbage collection and mail delivery? In short, what will the neighborhood be like if construction is allowed to proceed unchecked under existing zoning laws? We are asking, too, that where the city maintains ownership of one crucial piece of land, it set an example through the preservation of open space and low density rather than simply sell to a private developer.
Such citizen action is important, because it may give to a few discouraged or doubtful people a realization that they do count and that they can affect, for the better, the small world in which they live. To become involved in the complex processes of city government is not at every turn to face an uncaring bureaucracy; it may mean coming up against officials who truly understand urban values and are basically sympathetic to the decencies of neighborhood life. My own experience (and I have been on both sides of the fence as an official and as a citizen) convinces me that government at all levels is more responsive than is often supposed.
More important still is the fact that in showing care for the immediate environment, we begin to know what it is to care for something so large as the planet, so intractable as the round globe. I myself feel a very direct connection between trying to save a city block and trying to save the human domain. At least I am sure that if the threat to life on earth by nuclear bombardment is averted, it will not be by a race that has surrendered to fate, that feels it cannot control its destiny. We are all of us caught in unimaginable coils, and yet still with patience and intelligence it seems we can unravel them. But the time is late. In small things as well as great the victory belongs to those who go forth with courage and are not found sleeping at noon.