The Pamlico Rose Institute
Growing Community by Preserving History
805-320-2967
820 Park Dr. Washington, NC, 27889
robert@pamlicorose.org
(805) 320-2967 Robert@PamlicoRose.org

Finding Community in the Past:
Urban Living, Historical Enclaves, Kinship & Resiliency

18
AUGUST, 2016

Robert Greene Sands, PhD
CEO, Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities

The Pamlico Rose Institute

It can be said that the development of suburbia was social engineering.  

Prior to World War II, and for the generations that lived and died in small towns and large metropolitan cities, community provided identity, fostered security, and in times of need and crisis residents came together to overcome adversity.  It wasn’t just immediate crises that brought communities together.  Generations of families had deep roots in these communities, as did friends who grew up alongside family members.  Neighborhoods it seems were built in close proximity to encourage social closeness and support; walking to businesses, schools, church, markets, to other family members and friends, forging and maintaining everyday human connections.  Neighborhoods engendered social support networks that participated together in learning, play, worship, governance, and many other activities and institutions.  Within these connections and support networks, a sense of resilience was forged to sustain community strength and withstand and/or adapt to internal and external agents that affected society.

However, American society underwent profound changes in residential patterns as the population and its diversity grew in the 20th Century.  Industrialization from a post-WWII technology boom contributed to social and economic opportunities and wealth for many Americans, but not all.  A growing highway system and the mass production of cars made travel easier for many, not just the wealthy.  Escape from the crowded urban centers to the suburbs became possible, even though that “crowded” city had provided a sense of community and resilience for many years.  The large metropolitan areas featured urban blight and infrastructure failure as both people and resources fled.  The sense of suburban community was reassembled but lacked many of the sustaining influences that had contributed to an enduring community for many generations.

An array of economic, social, and cultural variables, even an inherent sense of classism and racism, propelled mid to late 20th century white flight, which continues to haunt American society today.  Development of infrastructure, such as interstate highways, commuting highways and beltways, bridges, light rail to connect suburbs to business centers, and metropolitan airports, among others, distanced the middle and upper classes from urban centers.  When it came to building these new suburban communities, American society was experiencing the Cold War, urban unrest, a sense of fear, and disconnection from others.  This translated into residential patterns that featured large lots, and even larger houses built far from streets, a lack of windows, a disappearing front porch, an absence of sidewalks, streets that wandered and streets that led to dead ends which were built for the car, not the feet.  Living areas were set apart from other land uses, such as parks and business sections, and access from one to another depended on that same car.  More time was spent driving to, then spending time at the destination, which led to less time connecting with whole neighborhoods of family and friends.

Gentrification

Gentrification
Source: The Way to Address Gentrification, Associated Press, from Umar Lee, Huffington Post, July 27, 2014

Today, re-discovering a past sense of community, and the resilience that it afforded may mean adapting to recent and contemporary social practices that perhaps can find resonance in residential patterns of the past.  There was and still is an asymmetry of the importance of public and private space in American residential patterns and this imbalance was codified in ordinances that created and still encourage impediments to re-create those past residential practices patterns.

“When we step back from these rules, we are really un-doing the social engineering of the last generation, which was designed to limit social interaction.  We are building on the best traits…. to trust and enjoy each other.  When traditional villages and towns were first built, walking and social interaction were taken for granted, and planned for with village greens, pocket parks and civic buildings incorporated into the town center.”

Today, many residential options exist in a changing urban and rural landscape.  Gated communities, senior communities, co-ops, condominiums and townhouses, lofts, themed cookie cutter subdivisions, independent living or nursing homes or both, crumbling urban neighborhoods captured and revitalized, and other approaches now provide a buffet of living alternatives.  However, the best and most secure are only approachable by those with economic means.  Densely packed urban centers wrestle with available space and residential affordability.  There are migrations of individuals and groups from urban areas to the less costly rural hamlets and small urban enclaves, from north to south, east to west, and from mostly anywhere out of California.  There is a counter movement of back to the cities, and one of gentrifying urban density as a means to rehabilitate and stem the tide of decades of urban blight.  Suburbs still spring up around cities and towns energized by new high-tech industries, while rust and coal belt areas bleed generations, populations and community identity.

Building and sustaining resilience is pivotal to community growth but communities are critical to the future of American society.

Suburbia.
Source: Condor 36 – Fotolia.com

These contemporary residence and neighborhood options now act to define community in ways that our parents and grandparents could never envision when they were growing up.  Ironic as it may seem, those older generations now join Gen-Xers and millennials as both groups on the opposite side of the age spectrum search for places to live that don’t resemble neighborhoods the seniors grew up in half a century or more ago, or for the millennials just a decade or two ago.  Each group has the same need for a comfortable and secure residence to call their own and spend a few months to years before dying or moving on.

Resilience

The reality of American society today is that currents of everyday stress are filtered through alternative lifestyles, lost generations, and fractured and fracturing families that swirl in American society.  A host of social, cultural, environmental and economic ills and stress affect those who reside in large urban centers, cities, small towns, and rural communities; everywhere it seems.  It is not so much different than what our ancestors struggled with during our nation’s birth, or what communities have contended with down through the ages.  These stressors are numerous, consisting of poverty, social, cultural and economic inequities, hunger, education deficiencies, violence and crime and others.  Although many of them are found in urban areas, several are common to all of American society.  Every community struggles with these stresses and has within its residents and institutions the power to help mitigate or alleviate the stresses that affect everyday life.  In times of crises, such as climate events, communities can be taxed to the breaking point and beyond.

After almost two decades of war, the physical and mental state of our military and civilian personnel who served overseas incur high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicide, alcohol and drug addiction, and depression in veterans and their families.  Many are also living with physical challenges brought on by conflict.  Making the force stronger and capable of preparing for adversity is now important; strong to survive adversity when it happens, and stronger to avoid adversity altogether.  Growing resiliency also means building capacity to withstand continued or new challenges.  “Resilience builds on strengths (rather than deficits) that are already present in the situation and its participants, so as to promote proactive (as opposed to reactive) strategies for managing adversity (e.g., combat-related stress) …Finding meaning despite adversity can lead to healthier attitudes, strengthened competence, increased job satisfaction, and reduced turnover intentions.” Resilience can be found not only in the individual but also can be promoted in the interaction between community members that depends on the diversity of collective experiences which foster positive response to adversity.  Improving institutions will drive greater community resilience.  Attending to conditions within the community that feed on inequalities can cultivate a shared identity and eliminate the fault lines that threaten to work against resilience, while increased resilience leads to an enduring and sustainable community.  We will address the tie between resilience, the military, and individual and community resilience later in this article.

This paper chooses to look at a model of community residence – specifically utilizing historical districts, in the form of historical dwellings and local historic districts – which addresses urban density in both large metropolitan areas and smaller urban centers and promotes resilience of residents and the neighborhoods they live in.  Nation-wide projects like Main Street address the capability of historical preservation as an economic engine to benefit smaller cities and towns.  Rehabilitating crumbling commerce centers through the window of history has shown clear and sustainable benefits to many smaller urban centers, especially those not near larger metropolitan areas.

Building and sustaining community and individual resiliency can utilize historical preservation to provide housing.  This paper considers creating “historical enclaves” or small collections of historical houses sharing a common area that are subtly and not so subtly distinct from the residential areas surrounding them.  This particular approach is an adaptation of the concept of pocket neighborhoods advanced by architect Ross Chapin.

A brief journey back in time will allow us to discover the value of historical resources and rehabilitation to neighborhood and community resilience.  History is, among other things, a prism to reveal patterns of behavior that endured generations and can still offer a template for a stronger community.

Houses at 24 and 26 Guerny Street in Cape May, New Jersey. 
Photographed by User: Smallbones (own work), 2011, [cc-by-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.

North Main Street, Concord, New Hampshire.
Source: Timothy Valentine, via Flckr CC

Brooklyn after World War II
Source: Ephmeral New York, Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn after World War II, https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/brooklyn-after-world-war-ii/

Brooklyn after World War II
Source: Ephemeral New York, Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn after World War II, https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/brooklyn-after-world-war-ii/ 

Montana Victorian 
Source: Revisiting Montana’s Historic Landscape, https://montanahistoriclandscape.com/tag/new-deal-in-montana/)

Changing American Society – Re-Discovering the DNA of Urban Neighborhoods

The baby boomer generation is perhaps the last generation to fully remember the pattern of traditional city blocks within a neighborhood area, and to Ross Chapin, an innovative architect, that generation will “…surely reinvent how they want to live out the rest of their lives, and for many that will be in neighborhoods that foster the same sense of community that many of us knew growing up.”  However, today, front doors are shut for more than privacy; they shut for security and to quiet the deafening city noises that can even percolate through double paned windows.  Neighbors are discouraged from socializing when front doors are locked in apartment complexes, condos, and in homes in subdivisions along with the ubiquitous gated communities.

Human existence has never been a solitary one.  Since the advent of agriculture, settlements consisted of huts and homes that opened out and around campfires with common areas shared by all (hence the term “common”).  Conversations knitted neighbors together like a tapestry enveloping them in a blanket of familiarity, security, and comfort.  Structures held families but did not imprison them.  As the American landscape changed in historic farm towns and growing urban areas in the US, the outside held gardens, areas for play, and walkways created enduring connections with neighbors that lasted seasons and childhoods.  Tenements and brownstones featured stoops, while outside front steps and street corners, just feet away, were places where connections were made and strengthened.

That existence resonates in memories of aging Americans and in stories of growing up with parks and playgrounds close by, and where alleys acted as shortcuts to backyards.  It also can be found in the DNA of historic districts in urban centers and smaller cities where community was tangible in the close proximity of home and market; and sidewalks and paths favored two-footed traffic; while cobbles and bricks saw four-footed evolve into four-wheeled horsepower.  Houses were made to last back then.  Communities endured the decades and survived World Wars, presidents, and a depression.  Neighborhoods, especially in the north, acted to equalize class, race inequality, and prejudice that plagued American society.  Resilience was found in the collective and interwoven interactions between neighbors, many of them who were kin.

Recently, titanic seismic shifts in US society have forced or led to re-imagination of what we think of as home and neighborhood.  Demographics of diversity and a smorgasbord of different family patterns have formed from a relaxation of traditional social codes of marriage as well as in response to dynamic and rather rapid social and economic transformations.  This creates a more complex system of relationships where kinship and affiliation may only be one of several important relationships in an individual’s life and can be vastly different than traditional family networks.  As a result, the American Dream of two-parent single family houses sitting on generous plots of land with a garage, now for many exists in the rear-view mirror, or for a growing number, may never have existed.

The evolution of where Americans have lived went from town and farm to cities fueled by industry, to finally the flight of the middle class to the sanctuary of suburbia.  Not surprising, that evolution also marked the fragmentation of the American family and its role as the constant anchor of support for extended members.  Family used to be community.  In many areas of the country, it’s not so prevalent anymore.  Yet, as anthropologists will tell you, the role and function of family endures across generations and cultures; kin and affiliation is expressed outside of blood and marriage for some and is reinforced by where and how we live.

A Brief History of the Fracturing of the Family and Suburban Living 

Since the 1700s and 1800s, life in American cities was made up of both the residential and mercantile areas, of which many shop owners lived above their place of business.  The city grew up around the markets and small businesses, creating a town square.  In fact, that can be seen today in many smaller towns.  Into the 1900s, this was still the model; families, parents, children and grandchildren lived close by if not together.  People married those close by.  In-laws became part of the larger kin network and when parents grew too old to care for themselves, there was an ample number of kin to watch over them or take them in.  Life for many often telescoped into just a small number of neighborhoods.  Even in rural hamlets and small farms, kin and family acted as support networks that lived just over the next hill or dale.

The social context that drove 19th and 20th century neighborhood living reflects a continued approach to urban living that facilitated frequent or daily interactions among neighbors.  Life was certainly not ideal, the larger urban centers featured a large disparity in wealth and housing; slums were common.  The urban density condensed the wealthy and poor and everyone in between into a more confined area, but reflecting the variety of housing types of the different social classes.  Family made up a large part of your neighborhood, with extended family close by.

The end of the greatest war and events at home and abroad brought a dramatic change in how Americans saw family, privacy, housing, work, neighborhood, and community.  American GIs came back to wives and girlfriends soon to become wives and mothers.  There was a booming post-war economy, and after the GIs returned, a booming number of babies.  This was the Baby Boom generation.  Women, like Rosie the Riveter, had fueled the wartime labor shortage, but that was to end when the lads came marching home.  The federal government put many of those GIs through college on the GI Bill, and the growing economy was looking to put those college graduates to work not only in the factories but running the factories.  Remember, as the 1950s drew near; so did our need to outpace the Russians.  Not so much the size of the families grew, but the number of families.  Therefore, space had to be found.  The cities didn’t have the room.

To aid the growth of the economy, President Eisenhower laid the framework for what was to become a vast Federal Highway system that spanned from coast to coast.

Early Southern California Freeway
Source: The Arroyo Seco Parkway after its completion in 1940. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives

Riding on this growing ribbon of concrete were migrating families leaving the crowded cities, looking for their own piece of the Dream, a home, some yard and maybe a dog.  They were to find the suburbs.  In 1948, Levittown on Long Island became the first planned American suburb.  Its homes were built using the knowhow of mega construction learned during the war.  Hundreds of homes were built in a short period of time and soon after, suburbs began appearing on the outskirts of many major metropolitan areas, and why not?

1950s suburban family and home
Source: Bernard Hoffman, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130324657

Family who were friends together in 20th century Brooklyn
Source: Ephmeral New York, Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn after World War II, https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/brooklyn-after-world-war-ii/ 

Cars were being built in droves, highways were being laid down as fast as the concrete could dry.  Gas was plentiful and there was plenty of land to build on, untouched till then because American life up to WWII had been centered in the cities.

The suburbs created a whole new American existence.  Stores and other services soon followed the families, as did the construction of schools, parks, and these funky roads called cul-de-sacs. Trains took husbands to work in the city, or even making them more mobile, the family car.  The suburbs also created a whole new American family because the old American family was left at the city limit.

For the many affluent who ventured into the burbs, the kin networks were left behind or fractured into pieces that now stretched over miles or states.  As the economy prospered, so did the need to move labor and the smaller more mobile American family evolved.  Left behind were relatives and parents, and after a while nursing homes grew in number to care for aging parents left on their own save the occasional or even infrequent visits from children.  Also left behind were those poor and uneducated, trapped in the cycle of poverty.  Other events and celebrations that cemented kin ties also suffered.  Living close, there were many opportunities to get together for birthdays, graduations, family outings, and holidays.  Kin were there to offer aid, both financial and otherwise, when needed.

The suburb family that now greeted the 1950s was much different in composition.  It was the nuclear family, perhaps a reference to the atomic age that propelled our nation forward.  Two parents, 2 children, a garage and a dog, and for the most part this suburban family was white.  It was immortalized by such programs as Leave It to Beaver and Donna Reed.  Other more traditional family structures remained in urban and rural areas across the country; however, the suburbs housed the new and growing middle class.

The Boomer generation was different as kin no longer provided support, and neighborhoods of unrelated families filled that need.  Children grew up, went to college or married and struck out on their own, continuing the cycle their parents started.  There were downfalls to this new arrangement besides the fracture of the family.  Housewives did not work; their life focused around the home, and their children.  When children grew old enough to go to school, a lonely despair was created that resulted in high rates of alcoholism and divorce, even higher than the growing rate of alcoholism that festered for suburban husbands trying to numb the pressure at work and long days made longer by the commute.  Families came together less frequently, even living in the same house.  Children having their own rooms created havens for play and mischief, making family socializing more difficult.  With the introduction of the television, families came together in a common room, but interest and attention found an outlet in a moving image, not each other.  Baby sitters no longer were grandparents, aunts and uncles; they were children of friends that lived down the street.

Today, many of our memories know only the suburban experience.  For example, the barbecue grill evolved in the burbs, we cut lawns that never grew in the city, a genre of music migrated from the city, a smooth jazz came to symbolize the suburban generation.  The suburbs were safer, yet sterile, and the birth of the Chevy Suburban signaled a new transportation need and foreshadowed soccer Moms and mini-vans.  The post-WWII boom brought a sense of affluence, the further rise of social classes, the return of women to the home, after being a large part of the industrialization of the war economy, and the advent of suburban living fueled by cheap gas and the growth of the American freeway.

In essence, Levittown, the first American suburb, sowed the seeds of a new residential approach that didn’t stretch so much urban centers but created whole new patterns of residence distant from town centers.  The eclectic and adaptable residential patterns of urban centers, and the infrastructure that supported them, began to disappear as those who could afford to move, did and those who couldn’t move for reasons of economy, lack of social mobility or family or other reasons became sole residents of crumbling and abandoned neighborhoods.  Cookie cutter subdivisions soon grew like vines separated from the decaying urban centers by open land and connected by concrete ribbons of freeways.  The community that once thrived in a bustling urban area fractured and those that fled to growing suburbia did not reconstitute that community elsewhere.

Recently, the concept of the “missing middle” has been applied to the relative absence and diversity of housing that exists between urban centers and far flung suburbs and bedroom communities.  Daniel Parolek’s definition of “missing middle” housing includes an array of housing types that can be traced back to varieties more common in American urban centers that existed in the century or so prior to the middle 1900s, such as:  townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, two- and three-flats, and bungalow courts, among others. The missing middle which became an integral component of urban living was last seen as World War II ended.  It can be hard to visualize the missing middle precisely because it has been missing so long; left behind as single-family subdivisions ate up the land around U.S. cities.  The period between about 1870 and 1940 was the heyday of medium-scaled housing in American cities.  In Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, two-flats (two-story houses with an apartment on each floor) multiplied; for that city’s Eastern European immigrants, buying a two-flat and renting out half of it was a rung on the ladder of social mobility.  Rowhouses, which speculative builders could put up quickly and tailor row by row to different kinds of buyers, proliferated in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

In Boston’s streetcar suburbs between 1870 and 1900, single-family homes were just one form of housing in a diverse mix.  According to one historian’s analysis, the roughly 2,000 single-family homes built in Roxbury, West Roxbury, and Dorchester during this period were far eclipsed by two-family homes (4,000) and “triple-deckers” (6,000).  Bungalow courts, which cluster one-story dwellings around a courtyard in a best-of-both-worlds compromise between private and communal, spread across Southern California from the 1910s through 1930s.

It takes a Village – or maybe just a pocket neighborhood to rediscover some of the missing middle

Folded into the mist and deep green of the American Northwest is a concept of homes and neighborhood that hearkens back to neighborhoods of your parents and grandparents.  Ross Chapin, an innovative architect, started the concept of “pocket” neighborhoods in Langley, WA in 1996.  He describes them as a secluded cluster of homes gathered around a shared open space such as a courtyard or garden.  Chapin and his architect colleague Jim Soules developed the first pocket neighborhood Third Street Cottages, after encountering areas of Langley that lacked a sense of what they considered “community.”  Third Street Cottages was a group of eight small homes around a garden.  “They just seemed like jewel boxes,” Chapin said.  “Tucked away off of a busy street.  And I said ‘this is like a pocket neighborhood.’”

This kind of neighborhood feature 8-10 recently built modest craftsman cottages that snuggle next to each other.  Comfortably intimate with next to zero property lines, but wide open and expansive front porches, the individual homes feature a common space that opens up just a step or two out the front door, providing a sense of nature that is bound not by a fence but the natural boundaries of the green space.  Leaving the common area and returning to the home brings more levels of privacy until the front door closes behind you.  But even then, with the door closing, there still is a lingering connection with neighbors that fades the farther one retreats into the home, replaced by a sense of family solitude.

Chapin and Soules identified patterns of design that guided the development of the neighborhood.  Underneath the immediate skin of the houses and shared land beats the pulse of a living shared spirit of community; style although pleasing to many is not the only essence of the experience.  Many of these design patterns act to forge and strengthen community identity.

It takes a Village – or maybe just a pocket neighborhood to rediscover some of the missing middle

Neighbor cluster —  Subdivisions of tens or even hundreds of houses have little connection to each other, with fenced private backyards and streets that cater to neighbors driving by without slowing, with car windows open and music spilling out, or shut up tight cooling or heating their occupants.  Pocket neighborhoods offer more intimate connections with those who “share” the neighborhood identity, and from a more practical purpose, are there to assist when necessary or befriend when desired.

Shared and Secure Commons —  Most living space in our society is either private or public and ownership of surroundings is a result.  In pocket neighborhoods the binary difference between public and private does not apply.  The space is defined to those who live outside of the neighborhood, but within the subtle borders, space is shared for the most part with varying degrees of social ownership.

When residents share in upkeep, visitors entering the commons will feel they have entered a private space.  Pocket neighborhoods of any size will enjoy the benefits of a community vegetable garden, while open areas that are overseen by a ring of homes creates a place of safety for children and even adults to play.  Landscaping promotes a sense of aesthetics and cultivates further a sense of community.  Interactions with residents will mirror that sense of privacy that exudes around the commons, and residents themselves will take part in the social flow of daily life from casual conversations to more meaningful ones.  Most likely all of these interactions that bind and define a community are dependent on sharing space.  For the security of residents, the most useful tool is a strong network of neighbors who have connected and solidified relationships over time.  Strangers and emergencies alike are noticed as daily patterns of neighbors become engrained in and can thus be responded to quickly.

A critical need for today’s children is to be more engaged with nature and outdoor environments, for a number of reasons, including health, diversity of stimulation, socialization, and more.  Common areas provide an area that accommodates the necessity for increasingly larger, informally controlled spaces.  “Pocket neighborhoods provide a protected, traffic-free environment for a child’s widening horizon — a place for unplanned play alone and with other children, and a place to have relationships with caring adults other than parents.”

Layers of Personal Space —  Visitors access homes through a series of spaces that go from public to the more intimate.  At each space, from parking a car or walking into the neighborhood from an access point, the visitor becomes less anonymous and more a member of the community experience.  Spatial layers can be ordered from public to private and are defined by:  an arbor that signifies entrance into the commons, the border of perennial plantings at the edge of the courtyard, a low fence with a swinging gate at home entrance, private front yard, a frame of the porch with a railing that reaches only as high as a porch chair or swing and flower boxes, and the porch itself.  Within the cottages, the layering continues with active spaces toward the commons and private spaces further back.

Live in and on Porches —  Open porches overlook the sidewalk or path and commons, and invite and foster social connectivity with neighbors and visitors.

Keeping the car and roads at arm’s lengths  —  Cars and street traffic are peripheral to the entrance of the neighborhood and parking is located in designated areas adjacent to the pocket neighborhood.  Front doors open to neighborly foot traffic, not the hustle and bustle of life that exists outside of the pocket of homes.  The pocket neighborhood does not shut public life out completely and the neighborhood is not walled and secluded from what occurs in the streets and markets that surround the pocket neighborhood and its homes.

Pocket neighborhoods signal one possible option to counter issues of density in small and moderate-sized metropolitan urban areas.  Many cities and towns across the US like Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and DC, that have plots of land within densely populated areas where infrastructure has failed and left holes of dysfunctional urban infrastructure, are potential options for pocket neighborhoods.

It is not so much the smart use of land which makes pocket neighborhoods successful.  As Chapin suggests, lifestyle choice now considers a range of personal identities which feeds answers to important questions we all struggle with, such as who we want to be and how and where we want to live.  Searching for these answers incudes considering the utility of pocket living.

To Chapin, “The sad story is that many of us lack networks of personal and social support.  Family members can be spread across the country, friends live across town, and neighbors don’t know one another.  Too often, a listening ear or helping hand is not available when it’s most needed.”

Humans still crave a sense of affiliation and strong ties that traditionally were formed through family.  That sense of kinship can find expression in relationships that are fictive such as those found in tightly-knit neighborhoods and communities.  Anthropologists refer to fictive kin as a system that involves individuals being considered part of a family network that are not related by blood or marriage.  Fictive kinship bind people together through similar ties that also bind genealogical family, such as affection, concern, obligation, responsibility, and roles.  Pocket neighborhoods, and other living associations and arrangements, provide the opportunity for like-minded couples or families, many that may include fictive kin, to utilize social proximity to engender lasting relationships.  While to some this may appear to be a “hippie commune,” Chapin feels he’s tapping into what it means to be human.  “Think about a small group of people, chatting, conversating — it just happens spontaneously,” he said. “Now think of a neighborhood with 200 houses — they don’t come together; they’ve turned their backs on one another.”

The attraction of pocket living may appeal to the boomer generation for obvious reasons, such as downsizing, relieving responsibility of the larger home where kids grew up, but other less obvious reasons can also be nostalgia for a past era of tighter-knit neighborhoods, “where everybody knew your name”.  One such aging boomer raved about the pocket living experience, “this reminds me of what it was like in the late ’40s in my hometown.  You know everybody, talk to them, learn and socialize.”

But for many different segments of the American population, there is a re-evaluation of living situations, and needs that drive that situation.  For many segments, not just aging populations, response to economic conditions or natural climate events that disrupt lives can prompt re-locating within communities or to different regions of the country.  Pocket neighborhoods offer an option to consider in this re-evaluation.  In the end, pocket neighborhoods and other such living arrangements, present an option that reminds us of the importance of community while allowing for the diversity of identity to come together to find common ground.

One possible pocket neighborhood option can be found in historical districts in smaller urban centers.

Home in the Sherman Hill historic district, Des Moines, IA
By: Allison Greene-Sands

Crumbling Farm House, What Cheer, Iowa
Source: Robert Greene Sands

Mark Twain Neighborhood, St. Louis, MO
Source: http://www.stlouiscitytalk.com/2011/01/mark-twain-neighborhood.html

Rediscovering the Original Pocket Living:  Historical Enclaves

Crumbling and endangered housing and other infrastructure now mask where history deposited the seeds of community in housing arrangements.  

Many local historic districts feature a mix of housing arrangements, from beautifully restored homes authentic to the time period to crumbling and neglected structures.  Mixed in between is an occasional vacant lot where once stood an historic home.  In many districts there exists larger areas of crumbling infrastructure.  Often, due to consequences of class, economic considerations, neighborhood growth and expansion or isolation, there could be parts of a block or complete blocks of neighborhoods that feature endangered or neglected houses, or those abandoned and in growing state of disrepair.  In areas of the district less prone to historical impacts noted above, it is more likely for one to find singular homes existing in stages of disrepair, and community pressure may promote home improvement or social and/or economic incentives to purchase may be more attractive to buyers.

However, bound by local and national covenants on new construction and restoration, razing sections of blocks or whole blocks of housing in historic districts to replace with new housing is not feasible.  Such activity also fosters environmental impacts to the local community, while new housing disturbs the aesthetic feel and negatively affects features of community instilled by the original builders and residents.

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) argues that healthy historic districts revitalize failing or marginal urban centers while strengthening community identity and promoting growth and development.  “A growing number of people—led by the young, diverse, millennial generation—are choosing to live, work, and play in historic neighborhoods.”  Other benefits of historic districts have been well noted to include investment gain for district home owners, existing structures provide for an array of living and business uses, and the forcing function of covenants and guidelines to maintain district identity and aesthetic.  “Historic districting is about keeping buildings alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the people and the cities that surround them.”

However, many historical districts in small urban centers lack development funding or the influx of funds from private home buyers found in more established districts, such as Old Town Alexandria, VA, or Charleston, SC.  Thus, there will be “weak links” or “holes” in smaller urban districts where houses fall into disrepair due to abandonment or are made into rental properties that invite minimal attention by landlords to maintaining the house and property.

These small cities or towns might also be faced with the quandary of forcing the more serious offenders, or absentee landowners, to bring to or maintain historic code or structural integrity through a laborious legal process or threaten and then be forced into demolition through neglect.  The former path may stretch over time and involve reticent owners.  The latter option involves city funding and could possibly include environmental relief, such as asbestos mitigation.

The concept of pocket neighborhoods could be applied to areas in the local district featuring a few or several houses or properties where a “neighborhood-based” approach might offer redress to the endangered feeling that is promoted by the “run down” conditions of a series of houses.

Small Town North Carolina
By: Robert Greene Sands

Addressing the aesthetic disconnect displayed by houses in relation to other sections of the local district by attending to a series of these homes simultaneously would offer a greater impact in terms of neighborhood identity.  It is more than likely that rehabilitation of some or most of each structure would be needed to bring homes to a point of occupancy shared by surrounding structures.  Here the local historic commission’s adherence to covenants and historic integrity can be a forcing function to developers and buyers to rehabilitate to district guidelines and restrictions.

Key features of Chapin’s design could be incorporated into these areas remaking them into historical enclaves.  Joining groups of neighbors can occur without developing a courtyard encircled by cottages, but commons that materialize when backyards are joined by removing fences.  Selecting a series of neighboring homes would guarantee that the backyards of each could be combined and then landscaped to form a larger “common” area.  Even though houses may exist side by side with front doors and porches facing street-ward, open and/or covered back of house decks could be constructed that would offer residents a more social and secure experience constructed around the common area (such as play, connecting with neighbors, security), and the opportunity for practical and aesthetic utility of the common area (gardening and effective landscaping).  City noise and safety issues of traffic are kept at an “arms-distance” from the common area by the actual structures.  Access points into the common area from other than the decks or back porches can be controlled by landscaping so Chapin’s layers of personal security can harness a sense of social connectivity offered by the existing arrangement of structures.  In all, the historic enclave motivates the shared sense of connectivity and identity idealized by Chapin and his pocket neighborhoods.

However, the need to purchase open land, construct houses, and in a sense start from scratch for pocket neighborhoods is mitigated by the access to a common area through the structures and existing property afforded by purchasing existing homes and then rehabilitating them.  A sense of overriding community exists already in the maintenance of the historic district but also in the aspects of the district that were originally part of the community DNA built into the original neighborhoods.  Chapin’s concept relies on a “pocket” arrangement of houses encircling a common area.  However, historic enclaves can be built with the nature and intent of a shared common space, using a variety of housing arrangements given the opportunity of the existing structures within a block.  In other words, many of Chapin’s features can be harnessed with a flexible approach to the arrangement and relationship of houses to common area.

Mark Twain Neighborhood, St. Louis, MO

Mark Twain Neighborhood, St. Louis, MO
Source: http://www.stlouiscitytalk.com/2011/01/mark-twain-neighborhood.html

Development within a historic district should only include demolition of a structure(s) as a last resort, but even then, the open space provided by demolition can be incorporated into the common area.  New home construction within a historical enclave, even though it may promote an aesthetic continuity and additional revenue, takes away from the intent of maintaining the historic flavor of the enclave and the greater district.

The benefits of an enclave to a district, and overall housing needs of the community, are several.  Rehabilitating an enclave acts as a social and economic jolt to the existing and surrounding neighborhood, using local labor and resources in its development.  There exists the potential to receive Federal tax credits for rehabilitating historical resources, as well as a variety of additional federal, civic and even non-profit financial incentives.  Rehabilitation upgrades the district in terms of the enclave’s influence in that area and can provide affordable housing to existing residents.  Single family long-term purchase of homes within the enclave is desired as it promotes continuity within the enclave.  However, the expectation is for greater immediate impact, as diversity of housing options might be engaged other than just purchased, such as lease to own and long term rentals.  Another option is to consider specific disadvantaged populations that historically might not usually have success at home ownership, such as veterans, to include wounded warriors and disabled veterans, and look to create opportunity for these populations.  Environmental impacts that derive from demolition and new construction are avoided, such as disturbing air quality, solid and hazardous waste removal, impact to existing neighboring residences, and the impact to the local historical district in terms of its aesthetic and historical sense of identity.  On the other hand, opportunity exists to infuse current sustainable and renewable energy technology and sources while utilizing natural resources to allow further energy sustainability into the design of renovations and the development of the common areas.

Historical enclaves, even more than pocket neighborhoods, are not for every family or individual.  The concept itself will self-select those interested in living in an enclave.  Having to adhere to local district covenants in renovation places additional restrictions on materials used, only historical accurate, and the narrow aperture for adding on to the existing structure or property itself creates additional restrictions.  Then there is the uniqueness of the actual lifestyle that is developed out of the shared living space and proximity of neighbors.  And finally, not every community has a historical district, or if they do, may not have the opportunity to develop historical enclaves.

Chapin best sums up the essence of pocket neighborhoods that also best defines the benefits of historical enclaves when he writes:

The people who live in these [pocket neighborhoods] know they share something extraordinarily valuable:  a model of community that provides a missing link.  They have their cherished privacy, but with something more:  they get to know each other in a meaningful way, and are able to offer one another the kind of support system that family members across town, across state or across country cannot.

Historical Enclave Pilot Project – Veterans, Family, & Resilience

Community resiliency, as we introduced at the beginning of this journey into history, family, and neighborhoods, is the process by which communities manage their day to day lives as well as build community “strength” to overcome adversity.  There are many ways to address community resilience as there are many issues within the community that can be addressed through building resilience.  Building strong communities depends on building a common identity, forging shared values through the diversity that is found across all communities, and creating support networks to address every day and uncommon adversity found in all communities.

One way to help with creating and sustaining the health of the community is by establishing a social vitality in the local neighborhoods throughout a community.  Family used to be that glue, but as we have seen, there are many ways to build a 21st century family and for many, neighborhoods that feature diversity of ethnicity, age, faith, and many other facets of who we are, and came from, now serve that function.  Pocket neighborhoods can be seen as a way to build resiliency; our suggestion is that historical enclaves can do the same.

The Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities (PRI) proposes to build a historical enclave in Washington, NC (hereafter, just Washington).  The project will be located in Washington’s locally recognized historic district and bring together Ross Chapin’s concept of pocket neighborhood, and its successful proof of concept in the US Northwest, with the concept of utilizing historical preservation and its financial, social and cultural benefits to a community through housing rehabilitation.  The HE project will foster a socially relevant and useful model of community development that features accessible housing to populations and groups that might otherwise have difficulty in home ownership.

For this initial project the population considered will be US military veterans who in some way would benefit from home ownership but may also have difficulty or barriers to that becoming a reality.  As written about in the beginning of this article, many veterans who have served since 9/11, experience some level of PTSD or other mental health complications from their involvement in battle operations over the last decade.  Sebastian Junger in his recent book “Tribe” has written that PTSD is exasperated by living conditions after the veteran returns home.  Chief among those conditions is after serving in a unit and benefiting from the strong ties and support network that arrangement brought in conflict as well as the productive feelings being part of a team brought, the veteran leaves or retires out of the military.  The veteran is then left to his or her own devices to begin to make sense and contend with the effects of PTSD that become expressed in many different ways, none of them life-affirming and or kind to the families of veterans.  At this critical time for the veteran and family to integrate into a supportive community and one that is aware of the complications of the challenges of PTSD and other forms of stress-related behaviors, many have difficulty reinserting themselves into society much different than the one they left prior to joining the service or experiencing multiple deployments.  Trying to find jobs, struggling with a host of potential addictions and the ever-present threat of suicide may task the veteran with additional complications not fully realized by families just relocating for work or retirement.  In the instance of veterans, historical enclaves can act to socially bind the veterans and their families together while providing support networks that are familiar with many of the variables that can affect veterans beyond their transition from active to former or retired military personnel.

Research indicates that sustaining the sense of community that is integral to military service for returning veterans may add to their resilience to help minimize the effects of reintegration shock while also providing a sense of shared community critical to their reintroducing back into society.  The unique living arrangement fostered by HEs may prove to be beneficial to therapy and recovery by providing a closely knit and co-located neighborhood of veterans that can provide a socially-engendered support network to them and their families.

In addition, it is planned that part of this project will also consist of a program to financially assist home owners with a down payment or initial help in assuming a mortgage.  Working with veterans, housing organizations and nonprofits, PRI will identify veteran families in the Washington, NC region, or those wishing to resettle in Washington, NC in need of single family housing and matching criteria established for residency.  An array of veteran populations will be considered to include disabled veterans, or those suffering or afflicted with PTSD or other mental or physical health issues as potential owners.

PRI is currently in the beginning stages of planning a pilot historical enclave.  Many tumblers must align for the project to advance; some would consist of identification of suitable real estate that would best fit the enclave concept.  The below are just a few of those tumblers:

  • Establishing a funding program that could consist of grants and investors or some combination of both
  • An outreach program to promote the concept and specific project plans, based on desire to accommodate a local populations’ need for affordable housing;
  • Historic commission and community planning approval and necessary permits;
  • Development of rehabilitation and common area plans;
  • Actual rehabilitation and then selling of homes to residents who fit diversity or need for affordable housing with potential financial assistance to assist purchase housing, to include a wide array of underrepresented populations, to include populations with special needs such as physically disabled.

We will update the website as this effort moves forward.

Conclusion – Finding Community in the Past – Urban Living, Historical Enclaves, Kinship and Resiliency

The Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities (PRI) is a nonprofit 501(3)(c) that proposes to develop an historical enclave (HE) in the historic district of Washington, NC.  A HE is based on the pocket neighborhood (PN) concept developed by Ross Chapin, and translated into successful projects in the Seattle metro area.  A current PN features 8-10 craftsman cottages that ring a common green space.  The cottages’ front porches and entrances face into the common green space and include walkways that connect households in a socially-shared community.  Landscaping acts to distinguish a series of private/public spaces and also define a secure area for use of the green space by residents and their children.  Cars, parking, and the surrounding larger neighborhood does not intrude on the PN.

PRI intends to acquire 4-6 sequenced “endangered” properties in the historical district of Washington, NC and create an HE.  Houses will be rehabilitated for single family residency.  The backyard of each house will be connected and any additional adjoining land will ideally be purchased to increase the common space.  Back entrances will become “a second front entrance” and decks and/or porches will be constructed to offer the same access and security benefits found in PN.

Considered in this project will be providing access and assistance, if needed, to populations at risk or an inability to meet some or all of the financial requirements for owning a home.  For this pilot project, the intent is to connect with veteran organizations that might be interested in partnering through funding and/or providing assistance in identifying potential owners.

1- Landscaping and Areas that Encourage Social Interaction, Vermont Natural Resources Council, http://vnrc.org/resources/community-planning-toolbox/tools/vermont-traditional-neighborhoods/landscaping-and-areas-that-encourage-social-interaction/

2 – Ibid

3 – Sands, Robert G.  and Steinkamp, Megan.  “Finding Meaning Inside the Box: Understanding RPA Crew Resilience.”  Small Wars Journal (Sept 10), 2015, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/finding-meaning-inside-the-box-understanding-rpa-crew-resilience

4 – Main Street America.  Preservation Nation.org, http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/about-main-street/main-street-america/main-street-america.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/#.V64jMigrLIU

5 – Chapin, Ross.  Pocket Neighborhoods
Mending the Web of Belonging, Care, and Support Among Neighbors.  Second Journey http://www.secondjourney.org/itin/12_Sum/12Sum_Chapin.htm

6 –  https://nextcity.org/features/view/cities-affordable-housing-design-solution-missing-middle

7 – Ibid

8 – Ibid

9 – Chapin, Pocket Neighborhoods

10 – Stephen, Linda, press release: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, http://pocket-neighborhoods.net/mediatoolbox/PressRelease-PocketNeighborhoods.pdf)

1- Ibid

12 – Manetti, Michelle, Pocket Neighborhoods: Ross Chapin Explains the Thought Behind These Clustered Homes, Huffington Post, December 7, 2012, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/07/pocket-neighborhoods-ross-chapin_n_2259045.html )

13 – Abrahams, Sally. 5 Questions for Architect Daniel Parolek About ‘Missing Middle Housing, http://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/housing/info-2016/missing-middle-housing-daniel-parolek.html

14 – Manetti, Michelle, Pocket Neighborhoods: Ross Chapin Explains the Thought Behind These Clustered Homes, Huffington Post, December 7, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/07/pocket-neighborhoods-ross-chapin_n_2259045.html

1 5- National Registry for Historic Places, Eight Tips for Saving Places, https://savingplaces.org/stories/eight-tips-for-understanding-the-complexities-of-historic-districts#.VxOd6zArLIU

16 – Ibid

17- Binder, Melissa.  Southeast Portland ‘pocket neighborhood’ brings micro-community to established Richmond. The Oregonian: Live.  January 16, 2014, http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/01/southeast_portland_pocket_neig.html

18 – Chapin, Ross.  Pocket Neighborhoods