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grayish brown sidewalk with dried leaves

Your Neighbor Lives Next Door

The Computer-Free Way to Happiness

Chico Fajardo-Heflin

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  • Judith Chumlea-Cohan

    I just bought an tablet for reading ebooks from THE big box store in town. After reading Farjardo-Heflin, I'm ambivalent about keeping it. I love books. They are expensive and our local library seems unable to provide enough copies when my book group picks a selection. Second-hand stores are great but seldom have what I want or need. I do email, I have about 6 friends on FaceBook. And, as a writer, I compose on Word, after pen and ink first drafts. It is ironic that my opportunity for reading Farjardo-Helflin came as a result of the Plough site. Otherwise I would never have heard of the man. So......

When my wife and I unpacked our boxes in our new home in the crumbling town of Ford Heights, Illinois, nine years ago, one thing we did not have to unpack was a computer. Unnerved by how wired our lives were becoming, Tatiana and I had begun untangling ourselves from technology we thought we’d be better off without. The microwave was the first to go. Then went the dishwasher, followed by the lawnmower, car, and cell phone. We swore off transportation by air, and then, finally, we pulled the plug on the computer.

When folks ask us what it’s like to live without many of the conveniences of modern technology, our best answer is that it has localized our lives. Without email and Facebook, we must nurture most of our relationships in person. This has meant that, while we have lost contact with hundreds of former friends, we know nearly every person on our block. Without access to blogs and news websites, we are out of touch with the latest presidential tweet, but we do know when a neighbor runs out of medication. Without air travel, conferences and edgy gatherings of “radicals” are mostly out of the question, but we can attest to the great joy that a neighborhood bonfire brings. Though scaling down our world from across the country to across the street has been challenging, it has helped us root ourselves more deeply in this place.

Some of you are protesting that you, too, are aware when your neighbor’s medication runs out. Even now, you are ordering a refill for her online. Loving our local neighbors does not require such extreme Luddite discipline. I hear you, and, on a good day, I even agree with you. Modern technology is not unraveling our ability to love our neighbors, but it is changing the places that make it possible to even have such a thing as neighbors.

Heading to Ford Heights without a car, cell phone, or computer worried us. We were concerned that our newly wireless life would isolate us rather than unite us with our neighbors. We were already odd enough as privileged outsiders led by visions of community, reconciliation, and kinship. Why add more “weird” to the package?

Our fears were quickly allayed. Neighbors questioned our lack of a television, but our other great technological sacrifices went ­unnoticed. We do not stand out. In Ford Heights, cars, tablet computers, and internet access are still luxuries. About a third of the people in our town don’t own a car, and those who do must often share it with households of, say, seven. Computers can be spotted in less than half of our neighbors’ homes, and internet access isn’t a given. Smartphones are growing more common but are not pillars of daily life. I have yet to see an Apple Watch. The results of choices that made us seem radical to those outside Ford Heights are simply part of ordinary life for those in the neighborhood.

We are one lively, semidysfunctional family…and I
love it.

What stands out to us about Ford Heights, however, is how well everyone knows one another. In the neighborhood, there is no such thing as a stranger. You are family, friend, or enemy – but never unknown. Walk down any street in the summer, and you’re likely to find young mothers gossiping on front stoops, image-conscious teens flaunting their new shoes, and hordes of kids romping around. This sort of intimacy has its downsides (“Everybody be up in each other’s business,” as locals say), but mostly it is a gift.

Those who live in communities like Ford Heights know what I am talking about. Neighbors watch each other’s kids. Lawnmowers are shared. Cousins and second cousins live across the street from each other. We are one lively, semidysfunctional family…and I
love it.

This sort of close-knit village life was new for me. Prior to moving to Ford Heights, all my attempts at following the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” were in the context of sprawling suburbs or trendy urban neighborhoods. I marched in antiwar demonstrations, purchased fair-trade goods, and helped throw potlucks for homeless folks downtown. But any engagement with my actual next-door neighbors was conspicuously absent. How was I supposed to love my neighbors as myself when I hardly saw them? It doesn’t seem possible in the transient, anonymous life found in most suburbs and cities.

someones feet in flipflops on the sidewalk

Things are different in Ford Heights. With rowdy basketball games clogging the roads and kids always knocking on the door, loving one’s neighbor becomes as simple and natural as attending a birthday party down the street.

Why is it that most suburbs and cities are random collections of strangers while places like Ford Heights are intimate communities? It occurs to me that the “localizing effect” Tatiana and I experienced as a result of our disconnection from modern technology has been at work in Ford Heights for years.

Our town’s relative lack of access to modern technology has shielded it from what has turned much of North America into an anonymous society. In places like Ford Heights, the high cost of air travel has kept people from spreading out, allowing vast family trees to take root and inhabit a single place. Limited access to cars means options for shopping are restricted to what’s in walking distance (the corner store) and not how far one can drive (the mall). And the fact that not everyone owns internet-connected devices translates into neighbors spending more time with friends in town than on Facebook.

I do not mean to romanticize my town’s poverty. Rather, there seems to be a direct connection between the amount of technology a community adopts and its ability to maintain a close-knit social fabric. Because its residents are unable to afford the new American dream, Ford Heights has (mostly) bypassed the techno­logical nightmare that comes with it.

The preservation of neighborhood life was not the reason Tatiana and I began to move away from modern technology, but it is surely one of the primary reasons we continue to do so. Neglected ghettos and dying rural towns are some of the last places left in North America where the greatest commandment can still be practiced with one’s actual neighbors. But as corporations find ways to make their latest gadgets more affordable and advertisers continue to seduce young imaginations, the gift of a local life that so many of us here cherish hangs in the balance. The loneliness and anonymity that has struck so many cities and suburbs has begun to creep into Ford Heights. Television already keeps far too many residents inside, and too often neighbors choose YouTube over pickup basketball games.

We’re not naïve enough to think our household’s decision to stay offline and on the ground will do much to stop the technological invasion that is bound to come, but we love Ford Heights’ block parties too much to be willing to give up the fight just yet.


Images: details of a photograph by Mercedes Luriane

someones feet in sneakers on the sidewalk
Contributed By Chico Fajardo-Heflin

Chico Fajardo-Heflin is an artist, dishwasher, and storyteller. He and his wife, Tatiana, currently share their home with two neighborhood teenagers. You cannot follow Chico on Twitter, but you can follow Jesus over to your next-door neighbor’s house.

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