I started this chapter's questions asking for a comparison of human encounters and connection in urban and rural spaces. Odell, by way of an exploration of Louis Althusser’s Philosophy of the Encounter and his thoughts on the necessity of proximity to create community. I got stuck on what seemed like an upholding of “urban” society as somehow superior.

Having lived in both urban and rural spaces, I question this.

Human beings are social creatures, and we come together to create society in all types of settings. Barn raisings didn’t happen in cities. They happened on farms, drawing together communities that sprawled for miles, people who gave their time and effort because they knew what it was to need help. In the small town of my youth, each neighbor went over and introduced themself whenever a house was sold. We knew each other’s names and when emergency sugar or flour or child care was required, there was no shame in knocking on the neighbor’s door. I’ve lived in apartment buildings with similar dynamics.

The distinction I’ve experienced is less between urban, rural, and even suburban areas, and more between what I think of as “old” neighborhoods – spaces that have slowly evolved a collective culture – and gentrified or gentrifying neighborhoods.

I’ve watched it happen, in fits and starts, in my own neighborhood.

20 years ago, the area I live in now was adjacent to what was known locally as “The Villa.” It was a rough neighborhood, with a very tight-knit community. That community worked together to get the whole place razed and rebuilt. A lot of the original residents moved back – either into the newly built section 8 housing or, if they were lucky, into homes that they were able to purchase through first-time homebuyer assistance programs. When we moved to the area 13 years ago, in the first wave of gentrification I now realize, we were greeted by several of the neighbors. We formed loose acquaintances with some and tight bonds with others. We all lived different lives, but we got together for neighborhood barbeques, and when the neighbor’s kid (one of those original families) started a grease fire on their stove while home alone, she knew us enough to feel safe coming over and asking us for help. There was an understanding among those of us new to the community that we were stepping into an existing ecology, and we took our cues from them, looking to understand rather than impose.

About 5 years ago, I noticed a distinct shift in that mentality. Rather than watching and listening and asking and stepping in quietly where they saw need, new families were loudly demanding not only space to pitch in on their own terms, but also praise for changes they pushed through over the protests of the existing community. In the midst of this change, one of the newer families emailed me, asking for insight – asking how I had built the trust and connection I had with so many different communities within the school.

They didn’t like the answer I gave, a variation of the above that boiled down to being willing to follow and learn.

I need to do more digging into what exactly gentrification is and where it comes from, but I do think a lot of it is tied up in the American myths of self-sufficiency and capitalist supremacy. I say this not to ignore or erase issues of race and racial supremacy, but because I believe that these are two of the most toxic beliefs otherwise progressive middle-class white Americans hide behind when they realize the racial impacts of the gentrification they’ve participated in, whether intentionally or not.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed the real-time collapse of those philosophies. Setting aside the corporate interests that are still relying on the communities of wealth and power that sustain their self-important avarice, the businesses that are surviving are doing so because of their communities, the groups of people who believe in what they’re doing. Students have set up phone-in shopping for senior citizens. Homemakers and sewing hobbyists have formed networks to make personal protective equipment for their neighbors and neighborhood workers. Like the barn raisings of old, our communities are spread out over miles, including people we may never meet. At the ground level, we’re remembering how to listen to our community’s needs. I’m not saying this virus is a cure for gentrification. Supremacy doesn’t get dismantled in a month, or even a year.

What I am saying is that I do see shades of the Age of Aquarius in the movements of today’s society. I can see a growing appreciation of our collective reliance on each other, and the strength that conveys. There’s a balance to be found, for sure. Allowing the self to be entirely subsumed by the collective is not healthy. But neither is it whole-hearted to shelter in the illusion of complete separation. To extend some familiar analogies, I think the task ahead may be to learn how to see both the forest and the trees.