As highrises creep up and up, fellowship falls and fades
(Highrises are for the birds)

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When you live in the same place year in year out, change creeps up on you gradually. But when you return to a place after many years — as I did to Richmond — change hits you full force, all at once.

The most visible transformations have occurred in housing, which is moving increasingly from individual homes on their own lots to tall apartment towers, standing cheek by jowl. Some people argue that these changes are inevitable, a defeatist kind of word composed of the Latin "in" (not) and "evitabilis" (avoidable).

The inevitability of housing densification in Richmond is debatable. Not debatable are the consequences. If more and more people are constrained to live in highrises, the general sense of human fellowship and togetherness — essential to any neighbourhood — is bound to diminish.

Now, that definitely has an oxymoronic ring to it. An oxymoron is a figure of speech combining apparent contradictions. The word comes from the Greek "oxus" (sharp) and "moros" (foolish).

Why should the sense of human fellowship decrease when, with an increase of highrises, there's simultaneously an increase in the number of people living close together? The answer is simple. It's because of a condition prevalent among apartment dwellers — anonymity. Even though they're all neighbours, living over, under and next to one another, people who are faceless and nameless tend not to bond.

An oxymoron that's become a classic is Marshall McLuhan's term "global village" — global being the antithesis of village.

Since returning to Richmond, I've thought a lot about what life was like in villages, especially those in Europe. Historically they had certain characteristics in common — the inhabitants lived close together and socialized. They had ready access to food and water, school and church. They shared concerns about security.

Burkeville on Sea Island had, and to an extent still has, the makings of a village. It was founded in 1943 to house workers of the Boeing plant at the airport. The newsletter Boeing Beam of September 1944 described life there, with passages that today sound like something from a storybook — there were activities for school-age children at the community hall during late afternoons and early evenings; every street got its turn to hold a tea at the hall; women organized "share-care" babysitting so that mothers could go into town. The village spirit had not diminished by 1956 when my parents and I moved to Burkeville. And the fact that in 2001 some former Sea Islanders launched the Sea Island Heritage Society testifies to the enduring bond uniting those who ever lived on that extraordinary island.

My present neighbourhood on Lulu Island has a similar feel. The street is a cul-de-sac, and the loop at the end reminds me of the central piazza in a tiny Italian village. When I unleash my imagination, the traffic island metamorphoses into an Italian coffee bar, with tables and chairs set up outside.

A few of the residents have lived on the street for decades. Most newer arrivals have been quick to engage with the "old" neighbours. Recently we joined Block Watch, which seems to have drawn the street even closer together. While we all respect one another's privacy, anonymity has no place here. We wave when we see a familiar face puttering in the garden or driving by.

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This page last updated: March 21, 2012.