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A front porch, an alley makes a neighborhood


THERE HAVE been a number of articles published recently about developers' attempts to create traditional neighborhood environments in new suburbs, complete with corner grocery stores.

In the interest of promoting this welcome trend, here are some arbitrary and personal rules for making a neighborhood.

If you want a neighborhood, you've got to have front porches and alleys. By all means resist the urge to have patios, decks and garages attached to the house.

You need the alley for the basketball backboard and to get to the garage out back.

You need the front porch to become part of the neighborhood again -- and the bigger the front porch the better. The whole point of living in a neighborhood is to be a part of its social structure.

You have to eliminate the patio and the deck because these are the illegitimate offspring of Mediterranean customs that cut the family off from the rest of the neighborhood.

And you've got to get rid of the attached garage because it is vulgar and defiles the house and requires an intolerable amount of snow shoveling.

Actually, for an authentic neighborhood there has to be not only a store down on the corner, but also a funeral home, a bar and maybe a local parish church -- with a school trailing off down a side street.

They will tell you that is an old world, gone forever, and that you cannot reconstruct such a neighborhood because it is obsolete and no one wants to live in it any more.

Why have a store down on the corner when you can hop into a car and go off to the local shopping plaza? The answer, of course, is that you can't chase the kids over to the shopping plaza to pick up some groceries, but you can chase them down to the corner store. You can even give the kids a cart to bring the bread and milk home in instead of making them carry the bags all the way down the block (as I had to do!).

Neighborhoods like that are still possible -- many of them exist in the big cities and their older suburbs.

Three of my nieces, exemplary and virtuous young women all, had the misfortune to be raised in a suburb (because in those days that was the place to raise kids). They did, however, remain Democrats.

But they have found functioning urban neighborhoods in which to raise their children, neighborhoods with alleys and front porches (though the latter not nearly big enough) and one has even managed to obtain a house across the street from a park!

By rights there should be a parish church across the park, but you can't have everything.

Things began to go wrong after World War II when suburban real-estate developers decided that if you had air-conditioning you didn't need a front porch and that the car had become too important not to live in an attached garage, which was, in fact, an extra bedroom of the house.

So eager were the young people of that era to find homes with more than one bathroom and plenty of electrical outlets that they bought into the patio and shopping plaza and attached-garage culture without realizing they were turning the front of the house into a wall and the street on which they lived into a desert devoid of humans.

You only saw your neighbors when you happened to pull out of your driveways at the same time.

More recently you've begun to see them when you nod to them during your respective morning penitential jogs, but there's no time to talk. At least you know what they look like in jogging togs and earphones. That is not a neighborhood.

Nothing is ever inevitable in human history. Young people still move back into old neighborhoods -- if crime and drugs and gangs have not made them uninhabitable -- and some suburbs are being designed to create at least the illusion of neighborhoods.

I hope it means that most humans would like to know their neighbors.

Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling author and sociologist. His latest novel is "Irish Gold."

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