Privatopias, McMansions, and Neighbors

Texans tend to wax nostalgic of bygone days when we sat on front porches, never locked our doors and invited our neighbors over for "coffees". We sat and talked or played dominoes while the smell of hay and bar-b-que drifted in through screened porches that kept lightning bugs and mosquitoes at bay.

Not very long ago most Texans lived in rural communities and small towns. Even the biggest cities were seemed to have a lot of room; Houston in 1950, now the third largest city in America, had a population less than Austin does today and even Dallas and San Antonio were comfortably-sized.

Now, most Texans live in urban and suburban cities where we've "paved paradise and put up a parking lot," as Joni Mitchell warned. Not content with living in the homes and with the lifestyles of our grandparents, we have built bigger and bigger.

In my own suburban neighborhood, I've seen the sprawl of "privatopias" - gated subdivisions where pizza delivery boys need access codes - as my fellow citizens seek invulnerability behind walls. These parts of town have names like "Forest Bluff" and "Warm Cove" that evoke images of refuge and safety while proclaiming their superiority. They are filled with "McMansions", some that even Saddam Hussein would approve of.

Now there's nothing wrong with wanting a bigger home, and longing for a bit more security, but do families actually need 1,000 square feet per person or are we just distancing ourselves from one another? Does a Hummer make a person smarter, prettier, or a better friend?

Elsewhere in town, often in ramshackle WWII-era homes that haven't been painted since they were built, folks still attend quicineras and get-togethers while the children try to keep cool with hoses. Neighbors walk down cracked sidewalks and everyone seems to be invited. There, under cottonwood s, oak trees, and pines people gather because it's too hot to congregate in tiny houses without air-conditioning. Someone usually brings tamales or a homemade cake.

Back in privatopio it seems like the only time I see my closest neighbors - strangers all - is during National Night Out. We shake hands awkwardly and talk about how great it would be to get together for a barbecue if we could only find the time. Then we scurry back to the shelter of our homes, turn up the AC, and cocoon. Our feed our need to connect to the world via broad-band Internet.

Is this the America that we want for ourselves and our children?

We have a choice of retreating inside private communities, building more McMansions, and abandoning our fellow Texans when we sell our businesses and go offshore. Or, we can remember our roots and work toward simplifying our lives and opening ourselves to one another.

Texans have always known what's truly important: not how much a person has, or the size of their wallet, but the comforts of the heart that make this our "home" state. We can return to the good ol' days at least in spirit if we work to become neighbors once again.

Was there ever a time when we needed each other more?

Peace - Charlie

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