Since the end of World War II, our cities and small towns have been slowly dying due to the urban-suburban sprawl made possible by the automobile and supported by short-sighted federal programs. As the urban cores have rotted, our sense of community has suffered correspondingly.
The flight to the suburbs was encouraged by FHA loans, which would only finance homes with a suburban design, thereby forcing people to move to the suburbs to get affordable financing. As oil, rubber and automotive interests dismantled America's streetcar systems, the new highways, cheap gas and cars all made the exodus to the "country" from the disintegrating cities an increasingly attractive option.
The construction of highways, subdivisions, malls and the selling of real estate kept many people employed. People moved into suburbs which were largely composed of other people of the same race and income bracket. The suburb did not have a diverse blend of stores and people and the kids who grew up there were largely enslaved to the car piloted by a parent if they wanted to see the bigger world. They grew up watching TV, playing in the neighboring woods, but not as members of a diverse town or city. They were insulated from diversity and, as the suburbs became more distant from the urban centers and typical of American life, people became less familiar with, and less involved in, being members of a community.
Today, we may spend hours driving each day, then arrive home and watch cable TV or spend time on the Internet, time determined by our individual likes and dislikes but which does not plug into any common community. Indeed, TV is often the drug that makes people feel like they are part of a community even if they don't know their neighbors. It's the artificial communities of "Cheers" or "Friends." It's almost like our common community is becoming a community of isolated people living parallel lives that seldom intersect - the lifestyle so chillingly depicted in the film "American Beauty."
Meanwhile, MTV stokes up our children's hormones as we try to keep them from getting pregnant before they have an education, a career, or a marriage; and rap music, movies, video games, Wrestle Mania, all seem to inflame the culture of bigotry, brutality and vengeance that blows like an evil wind across the land. Parents have a tough time raising kids in a pop culture that has become so toxic. They sometimes feel they are in a time-crushing vice that, due to time spent on the road, gets tighter every day. By the time parents and children get home they are often too burned-out to enjoy family time together. The two killers at Columbine High School didn't grow up in poverty. They grew up in a materially comfortable, spiritual slum alienated from their schoolmates, their parents, and any community. As our cities, towns and relationships erode due to urban sprawl, so does our sense of being connected to one another as human beings. And yet, after each school shooting, we scratch our heads and ask "Why?"
As Juneau plans its future, I think the main question is: Do we want to continue sprawling out over the wilderness, fostering isolation and alienation, or do we want to nourish community? I suggest that we consider hydroelectric-powered rapid transit from the valley to downtown. This would allow us to build homes downtown instead of parking lots. It will also keep the country the country for those who want to live closer to nature. The price of gas will keep rising. The cost of building the infrastructure that goes into supporting sprawl depletes the coffers of the city and exacerbates urban decay because there isn't enough money to pay for it all unless we raise taxes to support an increasingly expensive, environmentally destructive, dysfunctional lifestyle. Instead of development, let's focus on improvement. Our future should be based upon an understanding of what is a healthy human environment that will spiritually nourish our society. When deciding Juneau's future, let's ask ourselves:
Is it good for our children?
Does it add or subtract from community?
Does it make long-term environmental and economic sense?
Lisle Hebert of Juneau is a business owner and social worker.
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