Over many years of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, it has become very clear to me that society only makes progress through building and sustaining communities. Many of us belong to multiple communities: through work, our neighborhood, a religious community, or one or more social communities. Communities create a sense of caring and belonging where people do good for each other out of genuine desire, rather than guilt or obligation.
Government can play an important role in building communities, whether through zoning or police protection. For example, vast suburban sprawl where subdivisions are built without sidewalks creates barriers to community building as neighborhood children have no common space to play with each other, nor do adults have a common space to meet while walking. On the other end of the economic spectrum, neighborhoods rife with crime where residents live in fear of illicit drugs, guns and gangs, also prevent community building.
For over 21 years, my family has lived in a very special neighborhood. Sidney Street is a one block street with older homes. While many of our neighbors have lived here as long as we have, or even longer, new neighbors are welcomed each year. On Sidney Street, we ask other’s children why they aren’t wearing their bike helmets. We have regular block parties on holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4th. People even move from house to house on the same street (some as many as 3 times) if a larger house becomes available.
Shel Silverstein wrote a wonderful children’s book, The Giving Tree, in 1964, in which a boy develops a beautiful relationship with a tree, which keeps giving and giving to him through manhood, until he becomes an old man who rests on the now dead tree’s stump.
On Sidney Street, our long-time neighbors, John and Lauren Bell Bern have a living Giving Tree in their front yard. This Crabapple tree is suitable for small children to climb and we have watched children climb it for over 21 years. Despite the fact that this tree has lost many branches due to children’s climbing, and despite the fact that John and Lauren’s children are all adults now, they graciously permit children to continue to climb their tree year after year.
Unlike Shel Silverstein’s book, the Sidney Street Giving Tree continues to live and indeed thrive, despite the weight of many children’s bodies over the decades. The Sidney Street Giving Tree is where friends are made, and caring communities are created. As I write this, I hear neighborhood children playing outside and they gladly accepted my invitation to allow me to take their picture in the Sidney Street Giving Tree. One girl asked me to wait until she got onto “her branch.”