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Published: Sunday, February 4, 2001
By TIM COLLIE Staff Writer
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down
-- Robert Frost
When Kristin Jacobs moved into her Old Pompano home two years ago, her first instinct was to put up a fence -- one of those nice six-footers that turn a backyard into a secure compound.
Good fences make good neighbors, after all. There was something disorienting about peering out across the patio and seeing a swath of friendly looking neighbors on your rear flank.
"I was one of those who just couldn't imagine living someplace without that tall fence around the backyard," recalled Jacobs, a Broward County commissioner.
"You could not have convinced me that the fence wasn't necessary. Growing up in my old neighborhood, in other neighborhoods I've lived in, we never knew the people behind us."
But then neighbors began dropping in, welcoming Jacobs and her family to the neighborhood, inviting them over for drinks, for dinner or just to pull up a chair and chat.
As the block grew closer, spurred by younger couples moving in with children, residents made an informal pact not to put up the tall security fences, opting for small, gated fences when they had pets or children.
"For a while there it was like everyone moving into the neighborhood wanted to put up these hideous wooden fences, which would have just carved up the street and changed the whole character," recalled Marcia Doyle, one of Jacobs' neighbors. "But we just got together and decided not to. Now you can look down my backyard and see the entire block."
This isn't supposed to happen in South Florida, where the common wisdom is to move in, move out, trade up and tune out the other new arrivals. Homes grow bigger, walls get higher and the commutes get longer -- eroding time that might be left for the neighborhood.
But something after a decade-long drop in crime and other social ills, neighborliness may be making a comeback. A Sun-Sentinel request for readers who lived in close-knit neighborhoods drew almost 500 responses from throughout Broward and Palm Beach counties, hardly any coming from the same neighborhood.
That wasn't supposed to happen, if you believe critics of community decline. But while many people seem to think other neighborhoods aren't close, they are more than happy to boast about how close they are to the people on their block.
Missing the old days
During the past decade, a growing chorus of social critics has lamented the death of American communities, especially its suburbs. Things such as television, technology, longer commutes and expanding workweeks are killing community spirit, they say.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Americans spent less time with friends in the neighborhood, according to several studies. In the 1970s, the average American entertained friends at home about 14 to 15 times a year.
But by the late 1990s, that figure had been cut almost in half, to about eight times a year, according to the DDB Needham Life Style survey, a decades-long study often used by social scientists. Similar studies of American behaviors and attitudes have found similar declines across a wide range of social behaviors.
Geography is dead, some have proclaimed. Increasing freedom of choice and mobility, the Internet, low-cost jet travel and declining phone rates have allowed the like-minded to link up around the world and buffer themselves from their local communities.
Citizens "bowl alone," says Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who wrote a well-publicized book on the topic. They spend less time engaged in group activities such as bowling teams and civic groups, and more time alone in front of TV and computer screens.
We've become a country of gated and ungated compounds of houses without front porches, chime in architects and city planners, but with large garages in which citizens can pull in and pull down every night as if it's the Bat Cave.
"People have the sense that their neighborhoods here aren't as close as the one's they grew up in, but they don't quite know what to do about it," said Jerry Kolo, a professor of urban studies at Florida Atlantic University.
"So they move from house to house to house, changing neighborhoods every few years," he said. "Their children may not even have to change schools, or they may not even go to the same schools with their friends on the block now. It's very hard to build a close neighborhood because so few people stay put."
These forces are especially at work in South Florida, which has almost doubled in size during the past two decades.
But something there doesn't love a wall.
Around the region, even as they face increasingly crowded, rapidly mobile conditions, residents are forming close-knit neighborhoods. They exist, those places where neighbors know each other, talk regularly, are even best friends. And many compare them to the neighborhoods of their youth.
"Our neighborhood is really like one of those old northern neighborhoods where we grew up -- there's just a very strong sense of community here, people looking out for one another," said Staci Weinerwho lives in Paradise Palms in Boca Raton.
"It's an older neighborhood -- it was built in 1965 -- but now there's this mix of younger couples and some of the original residents," Weiner said. "You get this sense that there's a change going on, yet people here know each other and they look our for one another. You just don't think about that happening in South Florida because people are so transient."
In Davie, residents of Hidden Hollow Lane stage a "happy hour" on their street on Friday nights. Almost spontaneously, residents began pulling chairs onto their slightly sloped driveways to share snacks and drinks as their children play out in the street.
"It's kind of religious almost, the way we come out every Friday night," said Stephanie Osborn, 33. "My child will come home from school and ask: Are we having happy hour tonight, mommy?"
Most living on Osborn's block are the original residents of the 8-year-old neighborhood, which sprang up, along with many others in south Broward County, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.
Members of the group jokingly refer to themselves as the "gatekeepers" because their street leads to an exclusive community for which a gate is being erected.
"It's really healthy for my kids, that's the important thing," Osborn said. "I grew up in New Jersey and you really grew up together, knew each other. I think a lot of that is lost now. But not here.
"People are pretty much going to stay here," she said. "That's what I believe. I know I'm going to be here until my kids go away to college. I'm here to stay."
Ilene Baum was one of the "hurricane families" who moved into the neighborhood after Andrew devastated southern Miami-Dade County in 1992.
"Our old neighborhood wasn't that close -- I've never seen anything like this," said Baum, nursing a drink on a Friday evening during one of the group's happy hours. "After the hurricane, people came together for a bit. They shared things. But after the electricity came on, everybody went back to their house and that was the last you ever saw of them."
In Sunrise, Marisa Melendez regularly organizes block parties and neighborhood dinners among her neighbors on 26th Place. It wasn't easy. She still recalls how one couple told her during the first soiree that they'd lived on the street for 18 years and only knew three people.
But each year, more of the block's 30 families have come out. This year, harried from her own work, Melendez almost canceled the annual holiday block party before neighbors talked her into putting it on.
"No it's not always easy," Melendez said. "We went caroling last year and one guy opens the door, sees us singing, and slams it. Bah! Humbug.
"But you know, we're going to go back there every year, we're going to put a flyer in their mailbox whenever the block is doing something," she added. "And maybe one year, that neighbor will come out and want to get to know people."
During the past six months, the Sun-Sentinel has talked to hundreds of residents throughout the three-county region of South Florida in search of how they form and nourish communities in all their forms. In a survey of 1,000 people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, those who responded tended to identify themselves by their geographical communities, but located their friends away from the neighborhood -- at work, a place of worship or through some other connection, such as a sports team or hobby.
In all three counties, those answering the survey placed work just after family and before friends when asked what was important in their daily lives.
Neighbors were ranked far down the list, just ahead of government.
Just under half of all respondents said they had more friends at work than in their neighborhoods.
Yet far more people defined their community traditionally as a neighborhood, city or town than those who pinpointed it in places such as a religious or ethnic group.
South Floridians seem to identify themselves, at least superficially, by where they live.
The survey reflects what experts on community development have noticed during the past decade: a reluctance to form tight communities, but a yearning nevertheless to connect with more people around them.
The tension is best reflected by the patterns of architecture and development during the past 30 years, many experts say. Homes are steadily growing in size, while shrinking in the amount of public space like front yards. Likewise, as more gated communities are built around the region and the country, developers are adding communal spaces such as clubhouses, squares and parks within the walls.
"Yes, the pendulum is swinging back the other way," said Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, a work on the importance of gathering places in communities.
"When I was a young man, in the 1950s, the 1960s, the emphasis in real estate was status. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, it was security. People wanted to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods as crime rates went up.
"We favored protection over connection," said Oldenburg, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida. "Now what you're seeing is more and more an emphasis on community in the marketing."
But Oldenburg is skeptical about the rebirth of neighborhoods, pointing out that about 30,000 gated communities have been built in the United States with forecasts for 30,000 more over the next 10 years.
"What I've tried to point out in my work is that it's very hard for neighbors to connect because the trend is for bigger homes with an abundance of technology to keep you from making any personal contact," Oldenburg said.
But Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community has stirred a national debate, thinks things could be headed the other way. The fact that people are talking so much about the decline of community could signal they're on their way to reviving it.
"On one hand you see this persistent decline in people's degree of connectedness to their communities and others around them. It's a steady downtrend," Putnam said. "But on the other, we have been in similar situations before in this nation's history, and we've come out of them.
"That's what makes me an optimist -- we've overcome these declines in connectedness through brief, intense reinventions of civil society," Putnam added. "In personal terms, I'm rather optimistic that we all can work to reverse these trends."
Tim Collie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6624.
Copyright 2001, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.