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.