Modern life is missing something and I just happen to know what it is. I've noticed a disturbing trend in the home-building industry around here in East Texas. New communities are springing up like dollar weed in springtime all over the rural landscape around here. People move in, stay a while and then move out. They live at the mortgage lenders, negotiating for a new and better house.
They add dens and mudrooms, jacuzzi's, pools and decks. They get a second floor loft or a home office or a three car garage and they aren't happy.
I'll tell you why they're not happy. There are 10 essential things that make a bunch of houses in a pasture into a neighborhood. It's not that they all have the same color brick, the same shape roofs, the same two car garage and 8 foot cedar privacy fence. It's not that the whole neighborhood looks like a theme park - Welcome to Gray Brick and Haystack Roof Land, the happiest place on Earth.
Those aren't communities. Those are houses in a pasture. No wonder people worry about property values all the time. They move in planning to turn around and sell it when they can make a little money on it. It's little wonder nobody feels like they belong in a neighborhood. Most people don't even know more than one of their neighbors, if that many, and that's only because their dog poops in her yard and it pisses her off.
So, here are Tom's 10 Essential Ingredients for a proper Neighborhood.
1. Sidewalks. People around here are getting old. One in four East Texans will be over the age of 65 by 2010. We're having a little baby boomlet around here. All those yuppies that waited to have kids are running out of time. Kids and old people need sidewalks so they can walk, ride bicycles or cruise the neighborhood in Grandma's Hover-round. Sidewalks encourage people to get out of their houses where they can meet people.
2. The sidewalks should go somewhere. Every community should be built around something. A church, a day care center, a school, a drug store or a Little League ballfield. Every community needs a center or people living in it will find their center elsewhere. Then the community becomes a pasture full of boxes where people in boxes with wheels come to sleep at night.
3. Trees. I just love it when developers bulldoze a forest of beautiful old oaks and build row houses (starting at $200,000) with sweetgum saplings stuck in the ground in identical holes strategically placed in every yard so as to offset the identical arched front windows of every other house down the street. That's just wrong, okay? Where are you supposed to put the treehouses?
4. Chimneys that work and burn real wood - not just propane or natural gas. Fireplaces are not about the flames. They are about the gradual combustion of logs. They are about the crackle and the breakup of logs as the fire burns low. They are about the woodsmoke you smell as you huff along on your evening walk, blowing steam out your nose and breathing in the scent of oak logs burning.
5. Porches! And I DON'T mean those 3 foot wide strips of concrete in front of your door where you stand getting drowned in a rainstorm while waiting for someone to answer their doorbell. Those are NOT porches, I don't care what kind of chair or swing you set on them. A porch is not a porch unless it's got a wooden deck, a roof over it, a low railing you can see over while sitting and it has to be on the front of the house where you can see the neighbors walking by blowing steam out of their noses and breathing in the scent of oak logs burning.
6. Old people. You need old people to sit on some of those porches to watch out for the neighborhood, to keep track of the neighborhood boys who are up to no good you can bet and to wave at you and say howdy and ask, "How are you doin'" and "How's the family?" as you walk by blowing steam out of your nose and breathing in the scent of oak logs burning.
7. Water. You need a lake or a pond or something big and wet so that folks can sit and watch the sun go down and skip rocks into it. If you're not going to take the trouble to dig a hole for some water to collect in, you shouldn't be given a license to build more than one house at a time and in a neighborhood that someone else designed.
8. Individuality in design. There should be an ordinance that says to people right next to each other shouldn't accidentally walk through each other's front doors because they can't tell their houses apart. That's only for city dwellers and those folks seem to like having the same house as everybody else - makes 'em feel secure. Everybody ought to decide what their house should look like for themselves and quit allowing themselves to be bullied into a gray brick, steep roofed McMansion that looks like 300 other McMansions in this same cow pasture.
9. Terrain. Neighborhoods should not be flat. The hills should roll and the roads should wind. When it rains, the water should run in the gutter or bar ditch deep enough for a 7 year old to float his boat down the street for at least 3 blocks before it goes over the mini-Niagra Falls and sinks in the pond (see item #7).
10. Banjo players. Now this "essential" is admittedly controversial, but I maintain that every neighborhood needs a "colorful character". Where better to find such colorful characters than amongst the ranks of banjo players. They should give them free houses, just to add some local color to the neighborhood. They could cruise the banjohangout website looking for likely candidates. I myself could be persuaded....
Just one man's opinion.