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Published: November 19th 2003
It was a pleasure leaving Athens along a designated bike lane, but all too soon it had petered out and I found myself once again sharing the road with cars. My ride west to Atlanta led me through a landscape on the edge of suburban development. Almost every intersection was marked with signs for new houses: “From the 130s! Crystalwood Lakes Starting in the 160s! Golfing Community, 130s to 450s!” Often the signs were posted one on top of another. A constant line of cement trucks rolled past me, lumbering east from Atlanta. The two lane roads I traveled upon had not been designed for the amount of traffic they were seeing, and I guessed that within a few years the roads would be widened. Time and again I rode past utility workers marking out buried lines for imminent development. As I got closer to Atlanta the traffic became heavier and the suburban tracts became thicker. While I recognized the necessity for shelter, I still cringed to see a tree torn down or a meadow paved over.
I rode into the northeastern sprawl of Atlanta with my goal set on reaching Stone Mountain. I wasn’t so much interested in seeing an underdog monument, but rather in reaching the beginning of a bike trail that supposedly ran to downtown Atlanta. I ended up riding through Stone Mountain Park before I finally got to the bike trail, but large sections of the trail were only marked by signs along regular roads, and were not separate paths. As dusk fell I lost the trail signs and resorted to navigating by my GPS receiver strapped to my handlebars. I marked my destination in Decatur, east of Atlanta, and rode through subdivisions and narrow streets until I reached it. I kept the map display to a couple of miles in width, thus allowing me to pick out roads that bisected subdivisions. More often than not my chosen route was interrupted by speed bumps designed to prevent automobiles from doing just what I was doing- skipping the main roads.
Bert, my host in Decatur, had told me with some displeasure in his voice that he lived in a gated community. Visions of sterile expanses of tru-green lawns and blacktop driveways filled my head, but I was remarkably wrong. Bert lived in a “cohousing community,” a neighborhood intentionally designed to foster relationships between neighbors. After fumbling with the passcode at the gate, my first shock came as I stopped by Bert’s neighbor’s house to pick up the house key. When I knocked at the door I was taken aback to hear, sight unseen, a voice call out, “Come in!” I could not believe that anybody living inside of a locked gate would invite an unseen stranger to enter their house! Two boys in pajamas greeted me and their father handed me Bert’s key before I crossed the sidewalk to open up Bert’s house.
Unlike the isolated suburban housed that I had biked past earlier in the day, the townhouses in East Lake Commons Cohousing face each other across pedestrian walkways, cars and parking relegated to the periphery. Porches open onto each other, and common areas abound for neighborly interaction. After I awoke in the morning I walked around the community and checked out the organic garden, fish pond, playing fields and common house, where communal meals are shared twice a week.
A fair amount of the property inside the fence remained undeveloped, with tall, old trees providing shade rarely found in new golfing communities. Grass was a rarity on the ground, and was found mostly on a large playing field abutting two rows of townhouses. Most of the ground was covered with the fallen foliage of the season, and many residents had chosen to plant gardens that did not require mowing. A lawnmower was available, along with other tools kept in common for the use of all residents.
My host Bert told me that almost 20% of the seventy-odd households were connected to the Atlanta Friends Meeting, and the decision-making procedure was similar as well. Like a Quaker Meeting, community decision were reached by consensus. More than once as I wandered around East Lake Commons I ran into a poster describing “How To Build Community” through such simple acts as smiling at a nieghbor or speaking to the mailman. I couldn’t help but think that the same desire for community that motivated the residents of East Lake Commons was also present with the Catholic Worker houses and the Twin Oaks intentional community that I had visited earlier in my trip.
I don’t know for a fact that the suburban developments springing up around Atlanta are necessarily devoid of community, but it would seem harder to foster community when neighbors rarely see each other behind their window blinds and driveways are blocked with massive SUVs. I can’t say for certain what Jesus would drive, or where he would live, but the Gospels tell us that Jesus cared about and fostered community. In that regard I think intentional communities are one manifestation of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
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