Downtown View:City Life Is a Sharing Life

So many people decide to move into the city—what might they be expecting? Convenient trips to the movies, the opera, the symphony, the theater. Walk-to restaurants, bars, parks and libraries. Shops and supermarkets that make deliveries.

All these benefits exist.

The most frequent activity, though, may be a surprise to a former suburbanite shedding an acre of land. But it is one that successful city-dwellers find the most satisfying. It goes back to kindergarten. We spend most of our time sharing.

Sometimes it is structural. We share roofs, ceilings, floors and, even in single-family houses, we share walls. Those walls are usually good at blocking sound from next door but they are old. I know of one family whose fireplace smoked when their next-door neighbor enjoyed a fire.

We share horticulture. A neighbor’s tree will cast shade on surrounding gardens, if one is so lucky to have such a feature on a property. If that tree is a crabapple or a cherry, it will add a glow to the neighbors’ gardens too. There have been a few major contretemps over horticulture, when one neighbor, for example, takes out a vine that has escaped into an adjoining garden and become a major feature. And in such close quarters pests move quickly from one garden to another, whether they are of the insect persuasion or a rodent.

We share sounds. Construction is annoying, but most neighbors remember when they did construction too, so they let it pass. Loud music, inconsolable babies, the dog that barks the whole time his owner is away, trash bins being rolled out to the street—we hear them all. Sometimes through an open window we hear a talented flutist practicing. Not all sounds are annoying.

Our next door neighbor shares her ground floor with us, and we enjoy the peculiarity. Our furnace, hot water heater and laundry room are in her building, and we reach them from our house by a door in the party wall. It’s a long story due to history, and it’s perfectly legal, but strange to those not used to sharing.

Two downtown families I know shared a car for many years. It was easy to work out a schedule since most of their transportation needs were satisfied by walking. This was before Zipcar, the ultimate corporate experience in sharing.

Some people find sharing hard. A real estate broker told me that people who pay downtown property prices do not like to share gardens, as one example. And there are several private downtown gardens behind some glorious homes that are shared. Such an arrangement might not suit everyone.

The shelter magazines are full of houses isolated in Idaho or on a lone promontory on the Oregon coast. Interviews with the homeowner usually emphasize how their property is designed to get away from people so they can do exactly what they want.

A person like that won’t be happy in the middle of the city, and we wouldn’t want them here. We share rules and regulations that limit our ability to do what we want, especially in Boston’s historic districts. Those regulations recognize that we are not the first persons to live in our home and we won’t be the last. Those regulations protect those who come after us.

The most difficult times downtown are when one person takes more than his or her share. They decide that rules don’t apply to them. We found that out this past winter when some residents decided they owned the parking space they had shoveled out. Most of the neighborhood organizations made it clear that we share shoveled-out spaces in the same way we share all spaces. It’s the same for street cleaning—people who don’t move their cars are taking too much of the public realm.

The people who are the happiest and most successful at downtown living are those who enjoy the sharing. They are the ones who plant their tree pit and their window boxes to share with those who pass by. They are the ones who share with neighbors their plans for construction or an event. They are the ones who appreciate and contribute to the shared upkeep of our green spaces, our sidewalks and our roadways.

The American mythology celebrates  “rugged individualism.” But it turns out that rugged individuals lead unsatisfying lives. Study after study show that the persons most happy are those who participate in community life. Counter-intuitively, a strong community allows individuals with quirks, extravagances, eccentricities and oddities to fully express those qualities without harsh judgment from others.

If you are newly arrived in downtown Boston, take full advantage of its pleasures by becoming the best sharer on your block. Such participation will turn out to be even better than the walk-to restaurant.

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