Building Community in the Front Yard
How do chickens, front porches and curbside gardens foster democracy? Yesterday I rode my bike around town to find out.
We were surprised by the best thing about raising city chickens. Sure, we love being close to the source of our primary protein product, knowing that the good things that go into the chickens also comes out as healthier eggs. We haven’t been disappointed with the great circle of life: we feed the feathered ladies our kitchen and garden scraps, they feed us eggs, and their compost feeds the garden. And having such hilarious yard pets is a definite plus. (They really are just little dinosaurs, you know.)
But really? Democracy? From chickens? Sure enough.
To keep the noise and (possible) smells away from the neighbors on the other side, we built their coop just feet from our corner-lot sidewalk. Everyone walking by sees the girls scratching away in their Taj Mafowl. The hens have daily visits from all the neighborhood kids, and the renters across the street bring their compost over as treats. We’ve made more friends in the neighborhood because of the chickens than, well, in just about any way we’ve made friends. (Next to bowling, of course.)
So how does all of this relate to democracy?
Many creative community builders are paving the way. Engaging neighbors is the first step.
We live in a mixed-income, renter/owner neighborhood we call the Sunnyland Lower West Side. In the last five years, all over the ‘hood, neighbors have started living in their front yards instead of the back. Front-lawn gardens are sprouting up everywhere, even in the tree-lawns of the rentals owned by the church next door. (They sell the produce at church to support their anti-poverty programs.) This summer, two different neighbors across the street built new front porches, where they sit and chat with passers-by instead of hanging out in seclusion on their nice, private back yards. We dug a couple of horseshoe pits in our front lawn, and on long summer evenings we’re just as likely to be tossing shoes with strangers as friends; simply being in the front invites conversation, connection and play.
These connections are elemental to the “voluntary associations” that have marked American democracy from the very beginning. These “social spaces between family and community” created “institutions to accomplish a vast variety of purposes that elsewhere would be left to the established authorities or not done at all.”
My favorite recent example: The Tour de Coop.
For the second year in a row, yesterday we participated in a grassroots bike tour of chicken coops around town. No formal organization started the ride. No business made a dime off it. Just a neighbor, Josh, who through FaceBook, word of mouth, and stopping by to say “hi” to strangers managed to get a dozen folks to open their chickens’ homes, and 25+ other people to get on their bikes to “ooh” and “ah” over the good ideas they saw along the way. So. Much. Fun. New friends, new ideas, and real sense of community. Since the first Tour de Coop last year, many of us stay in touch, share chicken-tending wisdom (and freak-outs), and invite one another to other community events.
Voluntary associations such as these happen all the time, in all kinds of ways, and yes, trivial though they seem, they are the foundation of democracy. Because we have the freedom to assemble and share ideas around one common interest, we may go on to organize around others. Some of the folks who participated for fun in the Tour de Coop are getting involved in neighborhood associations, local food movements, and alternative transportation activist groups. These are the informal associations that develop leadership who will go on to serve on local nonprofit boards, governmental commissions and even to run for office.
Doing stuff together (almost any stuff) at the most local level is directly linked to other forms of civic participation, such as voting. So what are you waiting for? Get out in the front yard. Sure, it may just be chickens or horseshoes. But it’s for America!
What are other, micro-level ways you and your neighbors are forging democracy?