I'm sitting on the porch the Elk River House in Chesapeake City, Maryland, facing a river mercifully devoid of ear-splitting "go fast" boats. I can hear the mechanical whine of some distant machinery, but for the most part, I hear birds and insects. Yesterday was Memorial Day, and today, everybody is back at work or school. It's a hot day to be living without air conditioning here at the Elk River House, but I'm sitting in a rocking chair on the concrete porch in the shade. I have a laptop computer on my lap and a headset on my head, and I'm speaking rather than typing these words. Ah, the marvels of technology.
I spent the weekend in New York City with my children. We stayed with my aunt and uncle who live in Astoria in Queens. My uncle Steve is Greek. He has lived in New York City for as long as I can remember, but he still speaks with distinct Greek accent, and he retains certain "Old World" sensibilities; sensibilities which he shares with many of his neighbors and which have shaped the neighborhood.
Steve and my aunt, Eva Mae, own a three-story house with a back yard. By suburban standards their yard is quite small. It extends as a long rectangle off the back of the house, and the back half of the rectangle is devoted to Steve's garden. About three quarters of the remaining space is paved, and a good portion of that is covered by a shed roof with a picnic table underneath. There's a patch of grass with trees and lawn chairs, and the backyard serves as an outdoor room. Astoria is a largely Greek neighborhood, but many of the neighbors are Asian and Latino. Unlike many suburbanites and possibly many New Yorkers, Steve not only knows his neighbors, he visits with them over the fence with a vibe that I can describe, without irony, as "neighborly."
I said I was writing this from Chesapeake City, and according to the post office that is correct. But really I am in Port Herman, and this small well-to-do neighborhood used to be a town unto itself. Everyone here is white, and outside of the Elk River house, which has become a haven for people in transition, everyone here has a lot of money. The house next door belongs to the business manager for U2. He doesn't live there, and in fact, I rarely see him or his wife, and I have never spoken to them, nor they to me. A woman who used to live here in the Elk River House now works for them doing landscaping. She tells me that the neighbors refer to the Elk River House as "the Halfway House." It makes sense. According to their sensibilities, why else would unrelated adults live together under the same roof unless they were criminals who required supervision even after their release from jail or prison?
In New York City, people are surrounded by millions of strangers, and they have developed habits of body language and behavior which allow them to preserve a sense of personal space amidst the teeming throng. People avoid eye contact, and perfunctory interactions conducted with transit workers, sales clerks, and the like struck me as terse and impersonal in the extreme. I was riding the bus in Manhattan, and some Dutch tourists sat down next to me. One of them glanced at me and looked away quickly. I said, "It's all right. I'm not a New Yorker, so you can talk to me." My cousin's wife, Jenny, took mock affront at my remark, and she proceeded to chat with the tourists for the duration of our ride.
Given my interest in the topic of the potential collapse of industrial civilization, New York City strikes me as a disaster waiting to happen, but I absolutely love how New Yorkers live their lives in public spaces. The parks are full of children playing in playgrounds, young men playing basketball, people skating, playing musical instruments or just sitting on park benches or on patches of grass surrounded by people they may or may not know, but comfortable just the same. They haven't "gone to the park." They are just at the park, passing time and living their lives. People meet friends and sit and talk in outdoor cafés, and all manner of entertainment and distraction is available within walking distance of home, although 'walking distance' in New York is a very different concept from walking distance here in Port Herman. In Port Herman, people "take a walk," but bipedal locomotion is not a viable means of getting where one needs to go. Nothing is within walking distance, and even if you are willing to walk 5 miles to the nearest convenience store, there are no sidewalks. Any errand, no matter how trivial, involves driving. There are no buses. There are no subways. These are the conveyances of the unwashed masses. I'm surrounded by people of means who have no use for public spaces because they own all of the space that they require. When they travel, they do so inside a mobile bubble of private property.
New York City could not possibly feed itself, but it is replete with backyard gardens, container gardens on rooftops, and community gardens where people interact with their neighbors, while deriving nourishment from the soil. I saw a short video yesterday about a man who keeps bees on his NYC rooftop. In contrast, every property in Port Herman is landscaped, but there is not a single vegetable garden. A common nugget of wisdom in the peak oil community is the idea that 90% of the preparation required for Peak Oil is mental preparation, and I wonder who is better prepared to adjust to the new facts of life in a post-peak world; New Yorkers or the inhabitants and absentee landlords of Port Herman?