The other day I was driving to see some old friends. They lived a couple hours away, and I hadn’t been to their house for several years.
Approaching the outskirts of town, I saw a large unplanted field. Housing lots were staked out, with electrical boxes poking up here and there through the weeds. Another half mile along the road and I was driving past several huge new apartment complexes on the left. On the right were dozens of houses spaced out on three- and four-acre lots along serpentine roads.
The community was rumored to be one of the fastest growing in the region, and that certainly seemed true based on the amount of new construction I was seeing. The traffic was greater than the last time I had visited, the parking lots of the apartment buildings were full, and the houses, with their two- and three-car garages, looked prosperous. I could see playground equipment and trampolines in backyards, and boats and campers were sprinkled on driveways.
Coming into town, the highway was bordered on both sides by gas stations, hotels, banks, fast-food restaurants and drive-thru coffee shops. Turning right at the second stoplight, I proceeded two blocks until I crossed the old commercial district, where the highway used to run through town before the bypass was constructed in the 1970s. Looking to my right and left as I negotiated the four-way stop, I could see a couple of taverns, a cafe and what looked like a gift shop. It was hard to tell how many of the businesses were open. Half a dozen cars could be seen parked along the street.
I drove another several blocks through neighborhoods with houses of varying shapes, sizes and conditions, most of them built sometime between 1920 and 1980. I passed an elementary school, a couple of churches and a large park. A ballgame was being played, and a few people sat in the stands. Half a dozen children ran around on the nearby playground, the parents standing off to the side visiting with each another.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a prosperous American community, and since entering the town, they were the first people I had seen outside actually talking to one another.
How is it that a person can drive through a prosperous community with a growing population and see so few people socializing? The answer is obvious — and regrettable. We no longer build for social connection.
We build private spaces and we build commercial spaces; home and work. We build roads to connect the two. We don’t build for public life. And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because, whether we want to admit it, we are dependent on each other, and we can’t always count on others agreeing with our interests. That means we need places to work out our thoughts about how to live together.
Some, like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, think we can work things out in online spaces. All we have to do is get the rules right and people will get along. How is that working out for Musk and Zuckerberg?
Living together, whether that means a household, a community or a country, is not just a matter of getting the rules right. It is not just negotiation; it is conversation. That means we need to talk to one another and listen to one another. We have to participate in a shared public life.
When we talk to new people, we discover that we have a lot in common. We discover that we like the same music; we have similar hobbies; we have had similar childhood experiences; we have the same dreams and hopes. Later, when we go out among a crowd of strangers, we find that our perspective has changed. Instead of a crowd of potential threats or competitors, we see them as potential friends.
Our ancestors understood this. Every successful civilization integrated means by which people could meaningfully interact with one another in public spaces. The ancient Athenians had the agora; the Algonquians had the sacred fire; the English had the pub. They are the places where culture is established and maintained.
If you look hard in America, you can still find places where public life is hanging on. You can find places where people from different families and workplaces come together to talk about what they share in common. In those places you hear people talk about “our kids,” “our schools,” “our town,” “our home,” “our country.” But in too many communities, the remnants of public life are hanging on only in places that were built generations ago.
We are no longer building with the intention of bringing members of our communities together into shared public spaces. If we don’t build for that purpose, we will lose the sense of common ties that bind us together as a people. No effort to teach our children the proper values, the proper history, the proper rules of civic engagement, will make up for that loss.
There is a park a few blocks from my house with a sign saying, “Established in 1909.” It was built by people who believed in the importance of public life.
What are we establishing in 2023?