And Wishing that All of Us Can Find the Sense of Community I did at a Warm and Wonderful Old Inn on Cape Cod
A Lament for the Sense of Community we have lost in the ‘Geography of Nowhere’ by Doug Draper, Niagara At Large
Posted November 28th, 2019
As friends and families gather across the American side of the border for what I hope will be a Thanksgiving that brings them a little warmth and peace during these tumultuous times, I think back to the more than 20 years my wife Mary, daughter Sarah and I spent with a large gathering of our American friends each year at this time at a beautiful old New England inn on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
For all of those years, during the last week of November, we would get together at the Old Sea Pines Inn and share our hopes and fears and hugs, and talk about the wins, the losses and the draws in our lives, between walks along a beach or trips to one or more of the towns on the Cape.
We would play guitars and whatever other instruments people brought with them, and sing favourite folk tunes. And we would take turns cooking the food, setting tables and washing dishes.
For one beautiful week we were a community, and it was always a little sad when the weekend after Thanksgiving Day came and we shared our good wishes for another year and our goodbyes.
In the mid-1990s, while I was still working at The St. Catharines Standard as environment reporter, I was beginning to tread on a little more dangerous territory for some of my editors and some of the suits at the newspaper selling real-estate ads.
It was one thing when I was chasing down industrial polluters. Most of my colleagues were okay with that. But I was starting to take a closer look at the low-density suburbs some of the area’s big-name developers were continuing to build so relentlessly on good farmland, or on what used to be wetlands, meadows and verdant woodlands where birds once sang in the morning and frogs and crickets sang at night.
Within a space of about 20 years, in the neighbourhood where I grew up in Welland, the old Wilson farm and all of the fields and woods and ponds that enriched our childhood were gone – covered over in asphalt, box stores and row after row of houses that all looked the same.
Around the same I was devoting more of my reporting to what low-density sprawl was, and still is doing to our environment, someone recommended a book to me. And it turned out to be one of the best books I believe has been written to date on how soulless and void of any real sense of community these cookie-cutter, car-dependent suburban neighbourhoods can be, along with the strip malls and big box stores that tear the heart out of our downtowns and the locally-owned, family businesses that gave them so much life and character.
The book is called ‘The Geography of Nowhere’ and in the introduction its author, James Howard Kunstler, describes most of the suburbia built since the middle of the 20th century as “a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has simply ceased to be a credible human habitat.”
With all of that in mind, I came back from one of our Thanksgivings on Cape Cod and wrote a column I hoped would touch on the sense of community my wife, daughter and I experienced at those yearly gatherings.
But more than that, I wrote the column as my lament for a lost sense of community I felt at the time (and unfortunately, still too often feel today) as I drive the dead-worm streets, past the big and little boxes they continue slapping up for us to live and do business in.
I wrote the column in the mid-1990s when the Burgoyne family still owned The St. Catharines Standard and it still felt so good to be a reporter at a newspaper that was locally owned , independent and truly committed to being a watchdog in the region we lived in.
Indeed, when I re-read this column today, I can hardly believe there was a time when a community newspaper would be pleased to run a piece like this.
And given so all of the negative experiences this journalist and others have endured since the Burgoynes sold The Standard and their other local publishing interests in the late 1990s, I question whether what is left of any community newspapers would be interested in publishing such a column now, even though, in my view anyway, the concerns I raised then about low-density urban sprawl are, in my view, suburban issues I wrote about then and just as relevant to our lives today.
So for what it is worth, and I hope it is worth something, here is that column. Share your thoughts, if you’d like to, at the bottom of this post.
‘Seeking Lost Sense of Community’ by Doug Draper, originally published in The St. Catharines Standard, in or around December, 1995
There are special places we all like to go to sit back, reflect and unwind.
Mine is an early 1900s girls’-finishing-school-turned-country-inn on Cape Cod – a fragile finger of sand, windswept grass and pine trees curling out into the Atlantic Ocean off mainland Massachusetts.
Old Sea Pines Inn has a living room with one of those bi colonial fireplaces that can warm the weariest of travellers on the chilliest of nights. On many a night, over many a year, I’ve sat in that room, trading tales with strangers who felt like old friends before the fire’s last embers turned from red to powder grey.
I made the long road trip back this November with my wife Mary and daughter Sarah to celebrate American Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas season with innkeepers Steve and Michele Rowan and more than 40 of their relatives and friends.
It was, as always, an eclectic group of people that gathered around the living room fire.
There was Ed, an antique dealer, John, a great banjo player who could also play guitar better than anyone I’ve heard, and Jude, who remembered all the words to the Bob Dylan tunes. There was Joe, a teacher, Daphne, a nurse, Bill a real-estate agent, and on and on.
Together, we sang songs, walked to the beach, cooked and baked in the kitchen, and feasted on turkey and lobster.
And in the wee small hours, some of us were still up, sitting around the fire where the conversation turned, at times, to the question of why we can’t find this same sense of community in so many of the towns and cities we call home.
It seemed to us that in the short span of our lives we’ve paved over almost every last vestige of community with landscape so stark and sterile, it diminishes our chances for meaningful human contact.
We’ve abandoned our old neighbourhoods – the ones with the big front porches and tree-draped walkways where people once met and passed the time of day – for sprawling suburbs with wide streets for speeding cars, sun-blasted boulevards and front lawns that, as one American columnist once put it, are the modern equivalent of the medieval moat.
We can now live across the street from the same people for years, catching a glimpse of them every now and then as they pull in and out of their driveways, without ever knowing their names.
Our downtowns – once bustling with locally owned stores and restaurants catering to local tastes – have given way to shopping malls filled with chain outlets, owned by distant corporations peddling the same wares from coast to coast.
As someone put another log on the fire, one of the innkeepers mentioned that just down the road, the Cape’s powers-that-be recently destroyed a historic old building because they claimed it would cost too much money to fix up.
One by one, the old buildings that give character and a sense of history to our communities are being reduced to rubble and replaced with parking lots for all those cars we use to drive ourselves and members of our families to jobs, schools, grocery stores, shopping malls, municipal halls and civic centres located further and further away from where people live.
We motor down street after street, past ever more drive-through burger and doughnut joints, gas bars, and strip malls where human interaction is reduced to commercial transactions, carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible to meet the demand for rapid turnover.
In surroundings so barren and so deadening to the human spirit, how much easier it is to lose touch with our fellow human beings – to lose any real sense of each other’s needs and desires, along with the fears and misfortunes befalling so many people during these turbulent times.
How much easier it is for the politics of self-interest to weaken our commitment to the common good.
There are places we all like to go to sit back, reflect and unwind.
More and more, they are also places we go to escape the dreariness of the modern urban and suburban landscape.
For a few magic days during the last week of November and the American Thanksgiving celebrations, I made the mistake and managed to find a sense of community in a cozy old inn near the sea.
On our last night there, we kept the fire warm while we put up a Christmas tree and promised each other we’d carry the spirit of those days inside us until we met here again.
How much richer life would be if we could capture more of that spirit back home, in the towns and cities where we live.
A Brief Footnote from Doug Draper –
All things must pass, and for reasons that had nothing to do with any loss of love for each other, because that is certainly still there, the last Thanksgiving gathering of our group took place a few years ago, although we still keep in touch and get together in smaller groups from time to time.
Before I go, I can’t help giving our good friends and innkeepers Steve and Michele Rowan, and the Sea Pine Inn in the Town of Brewster on Cape Cod, a little plug. You can find out t more about the inn, which is still very much alive and open to guests, by clicking on the following link – http://www.oldseapinesinn.com/
To find out more about Cape Cod artist Karen North Wells and her great body of work, click on – https://www.undergroundartgallery.com/ .
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