Barn raising in suburbia

“Be the change you want to see in the world” so often gets lost in abstractness.

In your own neighborhood it is concrete the instant you step out your front door.

Finding “home” in urban sprawl

Can you point to where suburbia begins and non-suburbia ends?

Neither can I.

Suburbia is this feeling of hopelessness that washes over me when I drive into certain neighborhoods–feelings of: conformity, sterility, temporariness, man vs. nature, and garages instead of front porches.

Suburbia, or “urban-sprawl” is a phenomenon that grew out of zealous and misguided urban planners from the 1950’s (TED Talk with James Kunstler), and it’s flourishing today in Austin, TX.

Austin Suburb -taken from google maps

Austin Suburb -taken from google maps

Despite my feelings of discouragement I do have hope.

I live in a cookie cutter house. My neighborhood was definitely urban sprawl in the 1970’s, and good things are happening here.

My mission is largely about developing ways to help people who want to stay where they are do so. For many this means making the suburbs work.

Finding your dream home isn’t just about relocating. It’s as much or more about discovering the potential of where you are. Wendell Berry puts it eloquently,

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

Building barns is building community

Traditionally barn raising was when a community acted collectively to build a barn for one of their members. Since a barn was such a massive undertaking one family couldn’t do it alone.

Through shared resources and shared manpower they not only built barns, but also strong bonds of  trust and mutual care that made their community come alive.

Envisioning barn raising in your neighborhood

The fact is we don’t need barns, but we do need connection and a sense of belonging. The way I’ve been experimenting with barn raising in my own neighborhood is through house projects. Here are several that I invited my neighbors into–or visa versa:

  • Front porch rebuild
  • Fence design & build
  • Chicken coop
  • Turn garden soil
  • Additional parking space created with crushed granite
  • Interior house  trim
  • Build plywood shelves
  • Paint Beauty Will Save the World fence

Sometimes I wonder what will happen over the years if we all stay, continue to master new skills, and build trust? Could we eventually work our way up to larger projects?–maybe collectively help a family who’s outgrown their home stay by building a second structure or making an addition?

Identifying obstacles

Barn raising in the suburbs doesn’t happen naturally because of two blaring obstacles:

  1. Tight fisted neighborhood associations. The fact is that neighborhood associations often get in the way of your efforts to be neighborly. Some have a loose grip on their constituents and act more as a catalyst for community. Others are in your face about every little thing, and act more like a dictator.
  2. The wealthier we are the harder it is to ask for help. Needing help simply isn’t in the DNA of what it means to be an American: “Are you an AmeriCAN or an AmeriCAN’t!?” The trajectory of our individualistic culture is to be self reliant–that’s great! But in the process we end up throwing out the very things that bind us together. I listened to a great NPR piece on this:

“In just about every way you can study it, our lower-class individuals volunteer more, they give more of their resources — they’re more generous.” —NPR “As We Become Richer, Do We Become Stingier?

Hurdling obstacles

  1. The Neighborhood Associations: My experience is limited because we don’t technically have one in our neighborhood. But I will say that neighborhood groups in general are one of the most tangible places in our country where your voice will have an affect. All I can say is to participate in whatever measure you can give to it. Learning skills in conflict resolution and consensus building can also prove helpful. A good intro to this is the book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher.
  2. The Stingy Factor: This is something I’m working on myself. For me it’s a spiritual issue. You just can’t confront the hard questions like: Who am I? What is ownership? What does giving without need for reciprocation look like? without delving into the unseen realm. Like Wendell Berry said, “it’s a spiritual journey…of one inch…by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” The book that stopped me in my tracks 7 years ago was “Art of the Commonplace” by Wendell Berry.

Over to you

Barn raising both excites me and scares me because it contains the solution to so many of our modern problems. But it also requires energy and tenacity to go against the grain. I encourage you to join in and share your successes and failures.

What barn raising activities do you envision for your own neighborhood? Or what ones have come to fruition already?

I invite you to subscribe to my blog for continued ways to build community and make beauty where you live.

Posted in Community Building, Neighborhood

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