Chapel Hill News

Re-creating family and neighborhood

Churches, general stores, corner groceries, and local pubs have all played vital roles in keeping neighbors connected. Shared religious values could be tempered by diverse views found at the general store or corner grocery.

A local example is the Stainback General Store at Cross Roads north of Mebane, where for almost a hundred years (1891-1973) “the store functioned primarily, like many of its ilk, as the heart-beat of the community by being a location for neighborhood information dissemination,” according to Traci Davenport, executive director of the Mebane Historical Society and Museum.

In large cities, the corner grocery in the 1940s and ‘50s “helped to keep neighbors connected by providing a gathering place to unwind after work, to catch up on the latest news about sick neighbors or those down on their luck, and collect money for flowers when there was a death,” Davenport wrote of the R.T. Dunn Grocery and Freshwater groceries. “It was a nostalgic time and way of life that virtually disappeared after the arrival of the large grocery chains.”

Roseto, Pennsylvania, founded in 1890 by Italian stone masons 75 miles from New York City, provides a dramatic example of what happens when social connection is disrupted by a change in the economic fiber of the community. The Italian stone masons had a common religion (Catholicism) and a lifestyle focused on physical labor, health and connection to family and neighbors, which is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, “Outliers.”

“In 1961, they were a third less likely to have heart attacks and they didn’t apply for welfare -- they took care of each other,” David Wann said during the second seminar on “Aging in Community: Planning for Our Future” held at the Friday Center on March 18.

The Roseto effect was attributed to low stress levels caused by the cohesiveness of the community where three generations often lived in the same small house, according to Dr. Stewart Wolf, whose research found that the people of Roseto smoked as much and were more obese than people in small Pennsylvania towns geographically close to it (Bangor and Nazareth).

But between 1961 and 1975, Roseto’s heart attack rate more than doubled to equal the national average, according to Wolf’s final report, which attributed the decline to changing values and lifestyles by the young people in Roseto and was confirmed in a later analysis by Wolf (“The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates,” American Journal of Public Health, August 1992).

In a 1980 article by Kay Cassill for People Magazine, Wolf stated, “We predicted in 1963 that, if the social values these people had, began to erode, they would lose their relative immunity from heart disease,” Wolf says. “That’s what happened. They weren’t going to the Marconi Social Club. Cars changed from Chevies and Fords to Cadillacs, Mercedes and even one Rolls-Royce. Swimming pools and fancy houses sprouted.”

“We need to re-create the family that our culture has disintegrated,” Wann said. “Affluenza means we have to be off working and we can’t take care of our elders when they need us. So our challenge today is how to create family within a village in the cities, towns and suburbs we have.”

Wann has been bringing the best of our great grandparents’ values into the neighborhoods of today for the past 40 years. He has done this through highlighting other’s findings and his own experiences: first as a “back-to-the-land” believer in the 1970s and ‘80s, then as a co-housing convert in the 1990s through today where from his co-housing residence in Golden, Colorado, he is trying to promote a triumvirate of social connection, cooperation and sustainable living. He says he believes this is possible anywhere – be it a rural farm, co-housing community, suburb or inner-city.

“Any neighborhood that consciously decides it is going to get better, can get better,” Wann said.

The real challenge, Wann says, is how to cure the disease of over-consumption, which he terms “Affluenza” in a book by the same name co-authored by John De Graaf and Thomas H. Naylor on the subject. In “Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us and How to Fight Back” the authors write about how to get status not from monetary wealth but from working together to achieve what everyone needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

“We need status based on what you know and how you treat others, not on monetary wealth,” Wann said.

The goal is “how to celebrate the real joy of living in community,” Wann said.

He sees social connection as the foundation of that goal and re-tooling America’s neighborhoods as the way to build that foundation. A book he co-authored with Dan Chiras, “Superbia!,” details how neighbors can transform existing inner city and suburban neighborhoods to be more socially cohesive and environmentally friendly.

Wann said what he has learned by living in his co-housing community, Harmony Village, can be transferred to almost any type of neighborhood. Wann believes in the daily informal connections people make by walking around in their neighborhoods and talking with others.

Harmony Village has 27 homes on six acres and 60,000 bricks in its sidewalks. There is also a common house where neighbors connect with each other. From those informal meetings and get-togethers, many solutions to common needs have been discovered, Wann said.

“We have common meals once every two weeks — which any suburb could do — especially easy for condominiums with gathering rooms,” Wann said. “There are two cooking teams for our 27 households. And I have to tell you, when you shepherd a menu and coordinate who will bring what – you have a good feeling when sharing that meal. People need that feeling of accomplishment and connectedness. People need opportunities to grow and show what you learn all through your life.”

Eco Teams in Harmony Village meet to fix up each other’s houses and yards. Neighbors mentor other neighbors’ kids. Neighbors have gardens and bee hives. To keep their gardens watered, Harmony Water Rights Organization was created by 18 of 27 neighbors supporting it financially although all benefit from the water.

Over a decade ago Wann began taking care of his mother. Then his partner of 12 years got breast cancer, then dementia. So through all of the care-taking of those he loved, he said he became very interested in how to re-create a family. “Re-creating family is about empathy,” Wann said at a round-the-room conversation of 24 local citizens after a breakfast at the Chapel Hill Seymour Senior Center on March 19. In co-creating, we need a new vision: one that says, ‘We are excited about it — not we are stuck with it.’ Only co-operation can get us there.

“When you have something to work on together, that brings a neighborhood together,” Wann said.

America has 50 million suburban homes and that equates to trillions of dollars, Wann said. “We need to preserve and enhance that investment. We have to be thinking about how to do it ourselves. We need a visioning process: how to construct your own neighborhood.

“Suburbs can become villages. The dying mall reclaimed as a community center; stores turned into a neighborhood medical clinic; corner groceries inserted into neighborhoods by repurposing a house; and recreational opportunities created by taking down backyard fences and creating a neighborhood greenway.

“But to do those things, we need to work together to change zoning ordinances to allow the mixed-use concept to flourish in more neighborhoods— both inner city and rural – because transportation is the biggest obstacle to staying healthy,” Wann said.