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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Published: 7/24/2005

It all comes down to feeling neighborly

A new mall opened up in our area recently and there's an intriguing twist to it. It consists of five sections that the developers have called "Neighborhoods." JC Penney sits right between Neighborhood 1 and Neighborhood 2. Linens-n-Things is in Neighborhood 5. The big new attraction, a NASCAR SpeedPark, is coming to Neighborhood 3.

This shouldn't be surprising. In lots of places, the big restaurant is Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar, which markets itself as "an attractive, friendly neighborhood establishment." Some neighborhood. There are about 1,700 Applebee's neighborhood restaurants around the globe - or, to stay in the spirit of these things, around the global village.

Now I suppose you could stretch and say that Applebee's does have a neighborhood feeling, or at least the "neighborhood walls" in each of the establishments do have a local touch. But go to the company's Web site and click on "neighborhood favorites" and you'll see the chicken fingers platter. Neighborly, perhaps, but as someone who has seen kids' menus in dozens of states, I can tell you that there's nothing regional about chicken fingers. Nothing nutritional either, but that's another matter.

You can't blame the new mall or Applebee's for trying to seem neighborly - heck, we could use a little more of that around here - or for inculcating a neighborhood feeling. The corporate geniuses who come up with these things are onto something. Americans are neighborly people. (I'm not sure I'd test that with the Canadians this year, but generally the statement is true.) And if there's one thing we believe in, it's neighborhood values.

"We grow up in neighborhoods, we spend time in our neighborhoods, we know our neighbors, we know the people who own the stores, we know the people who work there, our churches and synagogues," says Bob O'Connor, who lives in the house where his wife was born and who likely will become Pittsburgh's next mayor in the November election. (He won the Democratic primary in May. Democrats in the city hold a 5-to-1 edge in voter registration.) "Across the country people want to come back to cities and neighborhoods. They want Main Streets and they want their kids on Main Street."

Mr. O'Connor ran his mayoral primary campaign on the theme that Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, drawing on one of the most evocative words in the American lexicon. "What the small towns, like the city neighborhoods, have is the potential for community - for direct, caring, face-to-face interaction of people, over time, and an opportunity for individuals or small groups of people to effect visible, if modest changes, even if they must now be mindful of state and federal regulations or funding," Richard Lingeman wrote in his 1980 classic, Small Town America.

America no longer lives in a small town. When the 19th century turned into the 20th, most Americans lived in a community with 2,500 or fewer people, but by the time the 20th century turned into the 21st, a majority of Americans actually lived in the suburbs.

But despite the growth of the cities in the beginning of the 20th century and the growth of the suburbs at the end of the 20th century, Americans clung to the idea of neighborhood - a notion that grew out of the small town.

"The country town is one of the great American institutions; perhaps the greatest, in the sense that it has had a greater part than any other in shaping public sentiment and giving character to American culture," Thorstein Veblen wrote in 1923.

But the fading of the country town did not cause the fading of the neighborhood; it just changed its venue. American literature went from the portrayal of the country town (in Mark Twain and later, more acidly, in Sinclair Lewis) to the portrayal of the city neighborhood (Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was sitting at 1,939 in the Amazon.com sales rankings one day last week, a remarkable feat for a book published in 1943 and made into a movie with James Dunn and Dorothy McGuire two years later.)

Indeed, the city-neighborhood novel is one of the staples of American literature, a genre practiced and maybe even perfected by Edith Wharton, Saul Bellow, Chaim Potok, E.L. Doctorow, John Edgar Wideman, and, if you include plays, August Wilson. Consider this: A drama (David Mamet), a novel (Avery Corman), and a nonfiction book (Ray Suarez) all carry the title The Old Neighborhood, but it is the subtitle of the Suarez book that is the most telling: "What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration: 1966-1999."

There's an Internet site called neighborhoodvalues.com, and it's the place to go if you're looking for a copy of Mary Meade's Magic Recipes for Electric Blenders, published in 1935, or for vintage malt-shop soda glasses. A lot of mischief has been sown by politicians using the phrase "neighborhood values" but the rest of us know that neighborhood values mean community responsibility, lifelong lessons, and human courtesy.

In our neighborhood, it also means walking down the street on a steamy July night with an ice cream cone and, even if you're new in town, running into at least one person per block whom you know.

Lyndon Johnson once said he loved the Hill Country of Texas because it was a place where people "know when you're sick and care when you die."

The neighborhood where I grew up was a combination of small town and suburbia. The neighborhood where my kids are growing up is urban but in many ways just as small-town, a phrase I use with reverence. There are lots of neighborhoods like that around here.

No wonder the mall and the chain restaurant have borrowed the word. They know it belongs to all of us, and to the best in all of us.



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