May 29, 2024

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be: Why A New Housing Estate Won’t Bring Back Community

Bring Back Community

I saw this sign on the back of a New Zealand bus a couple of weeks ago and was struck by both the brilliant marketing, as well as the desire for a sense of community that we now simply assume has been lost. It’s a call for something that no longer exists, right?

And it stirs an ache in us. Which is exactly what advertising is designed to do. To create, or rekindle, desire for something that we do not have. Or no longer have.

And what is that desire? That nostalgia? It’s pretty clear from the wording, as well as the gentle picture of children and their bicycles. It’s all very soft focus. Much more ET than Stranger Things.

Somehow, this new estate, Ravenswood, can return us to a magical land in the past when it was safe to be out on our bikes until the street lights came on. When we could be away from the house at a young age for hours, and our parents didn’t have to think twice about whether we were okay or not.

No Life360 App on our phones to ensure we were within reach at all times. No other forms of GPS tracker. No constant parenting constantly parenting. Oh for the good old days that somehow stretched in our collective memories from the 1950s to the early 1980s or so.

Of course they never really existed in such Technicolor beauty, but hey if it helps you sell real estate why not?

The Cultural Ache

But you get the ache don’t you? In fact we hear it all of the time. The West appears to be going to hell in a handcart, with all sorts of craziness happening. Most parents watching on as the culture wars around sex and gender and identity, as well as the porn scourge and the constant threat of “unsafe”, would love a return to the days they remember. Or think they remember. Cos that’s how nostalgia works right.

But in a sense there is a truth to this. I think there was a day in the past when kids could play out in the street a lot later and a lot safer than they do now. Or even if not safer in actual terms (things still happened), at least in the sense that untowardness was not de rigueur.

The ache is there for that type of community, as the bus ad clearly shows, but the fact is that such a rebuild takes more than bricks and mortar. Such a desire takes a foundation far stronger and deeper than a concrete pad built upon compacted soil. Such a longing won’t reconstruct what is no longer there.

What do I mean by that? Simply this: The foundations of how we even conceive of such a community, and the conditions upon which such a community could be built are no longer there.

Take this fact for instance: We once believed that if we were not watching over our kids while they were out on those bicycles doing all sorts of ET-like adventures, then another parent was. And we were reciprocating for their children. There was an implicit understanding that I could call out your kid for their behaviour, or help sort them out in a mini-crisis, and that you would be doing the same to mine. Even if that meant a strong word of reproval.

That no longer exists. And it no longer exists because we no longer have a shared common experience of what it means to even be part of a community. At least not one that has formed over time with an unspoken covenant of shared meaning and participation.

We no longer assume – or even trust – the moral framework of those who live around us to any great extent. And if we ever get to do so, it takes a great deal of time and effort, and usually at the behest of a community–minded person at the centre of it all. Yet this is vanishingly rare.

Expressive Individualism

The expressive individualism that we so champion – the You Do You stuff – has left us bereft of an ecosystem that would permit such an enchanted vision of life to return.

Robert Bellah, the late sociologist, put it like this:

Just when we are in many ways moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.

Though he said that some years back. So change the words “is vanishing” to “has vanished”.

Dale Keuhne, whose book Sex and the iWorld has been formative in my thinking, put it like this:

…the tWorld was constructed on relationships of obligation. Each person was born into a matrix of relationships in which there were mutual obligations and responsibilities…These obligations were fixed at birth. One could be unfaithful to the obligations, but one could not change the obligations. … personal relational choice is replacing the tWorld’srelational matrix as the preferred path to human freedom and fulfilment…the tWorld is being replaced by the iWorld.

The “tWorld” is simply the traditional World. The iWorld? Well that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? A few caveats first. This does not mean the traditional world was all community gardens and apple pie cooling on the window ledge a la Norman Rockwell. The tWorld clearly had its own issues! Even back then there was some nostalgia kicking in.

But there was a far more readily, and deeply, shared vision of the common good and of human flourishing, that over time built a foundation that meant that one would not have to conjure up an advertising campaign to pitch what was already a given. In other words:

Something that a community owned for free, and that grew up naturally within its ecosystem could not be packaged and sold back to them!

You can’t sell to us what we already own. That’s not how this works. You can only sell us something we desire. Advertising knows this. And – funny enough – it knows we long for this sort of community, even while the whole creative industry world has spent the last thirty years strip-mining anything of worth from our communal life, in order to sell us our individualistic dreams.

Selling An Idea; That No Longer Exists

Our primary purpose in suburban life, according to the ad agencies, was to be the envy of our neighbours. And now they want us to be their protectors? How can they now turn around and sell us what they dug up from beneath us? How can that be sold back to us and we say nothing?

Relationships of mutual obligation, if they exist, have shrunk to our immediate families. We no longer reflexively hold that same level of mutual obligation to the house next door, never mind the streets of our suburb. Sure there are many community events that are being organised by many levels of government.

But that’s the point: Mediating institutions that buffer us from the government and protect us from the isolation of the solitary individual are supposed to be organic. They spring from a certain soil. When that soil no longer exists, or when it has been poisoned by the harsh tribal identity politics of our age which pits us all against each other, in our minds if not in reality, the institutions don’t grow.

Such a community being pitched in that advertisement is now a chimera. We cannot build with bricks and mortar and advertising, what took many years to lay down. We have gone down the rabbit hole of expressive individualism to such a degree that we instinctively as parents pull our children away from unstructured and unplanned activities that do not involve us being in their immediate zone.

And of course, the water we swam in was Christian water. We assumed frameworks below the surface that, even if we did not assent to them ourselves in our daily lives, would support and hold the level of community required for a common vision of human flourishing.

We now live in a context in which we supposedly celebrate the freedom of every individual to be who they authentically know themselves to be, yet at the same time are fearful of the abyss that that has created. We have no category for sin or evil any longer, but we’re not sending our kids off to grandma’s house with cookies through the woods anymore. We have rejected the wolverine idea of sin, yet fear its fangs and claws. It’s not wonder we are confused mess.

So we will buy houses in Ravenswood estate. We will build gardens. And we will build fences. We will meter and structure our lives to accommodate what we know to be an unsafe world. And we will watch our children like hawks, always worried that some other more troublesome bird of prey is watching them also.

New townships can sell us all of the nostalgia they want to. But without the right cultural conditions and underpinnings to guarantee the results they portray, the lights may be on, but no one is home.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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