Loneliness and daily life

Aaron Renn writes:

If you are one of those people in a big city who is feeling lonely or disconnected, I’ve got a nearly sure-fire way to change things. Go look for someone who is even lonelier and more hurting than you, and go be that person’s friend.

I’m always astonished that there could be so many lonely people in the city. This would seem to be an easy problem to solve; just go be each other’s friends. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I think in part that’s because we’re always looking for relationships that are going to deliver value to us, instead of us looking for how we’re going to deliver value to others. We always want to network up. We seldom want to network down. (Though we often stay in our lanes on social media, as I noted above).

This is an area where I part ways with a lot of the secular self-help gurus. Most of those guys tend to recommend pruning the deadweight relationships out of your life, and purging the losers, energy drainers, etc. There’s a place for that if you’re in unhealthy relationships. But Christians simply can’t apply that as a rule for life. We are called to be there for those who have nothing to offer us (or at least that we think don’t have anything to offer).

Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35). Living in New York, I constantly see people who are obviously lonely and looking for friendship (and romance, and other kinds of relationships). I see them in my own church. Presumably there are many people in NYC I don’t meet who are even more disconnected. There are a lot hurting people in the big city.

The best way to find a friend for yourself if you’re lonely is to be a friend to someone who’s even lonelier and more hurting than you. As I discovered, this often isn’t even very hard if you’re simply willing to regularly spend time with the person. The relationship itself will then often just happen. (If you have some severe social interaction problem or disability, this might still be very challenging for you. I want to acknowledge that some people do have genuine problems here).

I think you’ll find that when you think you’re helping someone else, you actually end up helping yourself too. That’s the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. We’re called to do things contrary to our natural (sinful) inclinations. But this has a tendency to end up being the best policy for ourselves over the long haul. The gospel isn’t a rulebook for life, or a set of if-then precepts for getting what we want. The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. But God’s ways aren’t just arbitrary commands designed to make us practice jumping through hoops. They are also the best path to human flourishing properly understood. Even some of the secular self-help people get it when they point out that you first have to give before you can get.

So don’t be surprised that if you decide to befriend someone in need that you think has nothing to offer you that you end up getting way more out of it than you ever thought you would.

Aaron is writing about loneliness and city life, but I think this applies equally to daily life for most people, anywhere at this point. In very real ways, daily life in suburban communities is not only as segregated and atomized as it might be in cities, but it’s also more difficult to meet your neighbors, because there’s not the physical closeness for spontaneity and for running into one another.

Bountiful, but fake

I was walking through Wegman’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania earlier today, and at some point I stopped to observe the scene I’m shaping here.

What struck me about these scenes from Wegman’s were, on the one hand, how this section of the grocery store is designed to resemble both an Old World-style public market and a smaller feeling town square. Looking straight up at the ceiling to see warehouse style sheet metal and electrical breaks this spell, but on the ground level the aesthetic is convincing as far as it tries to be. It does succeed in making Wegman’s feel like a “place,” rather than just another frontage in a faceless, memory-less asphalt and concrete suburbia.

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Another thing struck me, though, standing there: this place that’s constructed to appear solid and substantial—despite being fake—is more bountiful in both the quantity and variety of ready to eat meals, meats, cheeses, deserts, foods of other varieties, and beer, wine, and liquor than any typical, authentic Old World market of this kind ever was. Asian chicken, a dozen varieties of turkey lunchmeat, freshly cooked breads and cookies of all varieties, gourmet bagels and cream cheeses, live seafoods, organic fresh raspberries in winter, etc.

Places like this are in some sense places of unreality, yet they are also places of plenty on a scale that the Old World realities generally couldn’t hope to offer. You might live in a truly solid place, in the heart of a village that’s been there for a thousand years, but where your daily life is far less varied and less culinarily interesting than places like Wegman’s now offer.

Christmas and ‘downtowns’

As Christmas nears, it’s natural to want to experience the spirit of the season, and that usually means visiting a place that is festooned with Christmas trees, garland, twinkling lights, and frosted storefronts. In other words, it means visiting a traditional downtown, and Matthias Leyrer suggests why that is:

The architectural beauty and community space found in classic American downtowns is far superior to what we build now. Streets lined with structures designed to last centuries highlight traditions of generations past. This connection to history is an essential part of creating a community, especially during Christmas when old buildings are made to sparkle and shimmer, sharing the holiday cheer as they have for decades.

But it’s not just about history and tradition. Classic cities are built for humans and beget human interactions. So while you’re busy with holiday shopping and appointments, you’ll be out walking among other people, following the advice of A Holly Jolly Christmas as you “say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”

The traditional cities that are sung about in our Christmas music don’t just highlight the spirit of the holiday, they create it. They make us take things slower. They get us walking amidst the lights and decorations on the buildings. They put us on the street, interacting with the other people enjoying the Christmas atmosphere. They are part of the season itself—free and welcoming to all.

For so many families around the country, Christmas is still rooted in tradition. Whether it be meals, songs, events, or the simple act of being together, it is a time where we turn our eyes to our family and acquaintances. Many people work hard to instill their Christmas traditions in their children. Why not ask the same thing of our cities? Do we want our children to associate Christmas with spending hours at the mall or lazily clicking through Amazon? Or do we want them to realize that our physical structures can be part of their heritage and have a lasting impact for generations?

As we deemphasize the role of the cityscape in our lives, we remain giddy about decorating our own houses with images of traditional community. People spend hundreds of dollars on ceramic models of Christmas villages with corner stores, decorated public squares, and open-air Christmas markets. They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots. Imagine how ghastly a ceramic model of WalMart or Toys ‘R Us would look perched upon a piano at Christmas time. Yet these are the buildings our city governments often support with generous tax credits.

Some conservatives will dismiss these reactions to the contemporary retail landscape as mere nostalgia: Big-box stores are good and in keeping with the creative destruction of capitalism. Likewise, they might claim that our downtowns fail because they aren’t competitive, and traditionally patterned cities are “not what the market wants.” Such naysayers appear tone deaf to the idea that conservatism might also balance these concerns with the preservation of beauty, place, or tradition.

There is no question that our built environment underscores the idea that as a community feast day, Christmas is no longer important. Our poorly constructed cities are encouraged to overconsume, while the lack of quality public space has eroded our sense of community. The charm of Christmas now only lives in black-and-white movies, where it harkens back to a time and place that people have forgotten how to build. We’ve lost the “Main Street” that made it possible to frame public celebrations and holidays. Is Christmas now limited to plastic trees and lights in the front yard that we put up haphazardly because it’s the social norm?

As you run your errands this holiday season, pay attention to your surroundings. Ask yourself if these built environments are really emblematic of the “greatest nation on earth” or if they serve the purpose of interests—Wall Street and global corporations—not in line with your own best interests and those of your community. We vote with our pocketbooks. If enough of us reject the seeming enticements of the malls and strip centers, we can restore a more humane holiday season. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cold parking lots, and sterile big-box stores, you might again have a place where you can tell that it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Global capitalism, to a large degree, seems almost necessarily to corrode culture in order to expand markets in an efficient way. But community life, and sacred times like Advent and Christmastime that only people in community can experience meaningfully, need physical place to be distinctive and real, rather than derivative and abstract, in order to be healthy.

Desolate places

Sara Joy Proppe shares a beautiful but heart-rending encounter with an elderly woman in a big box store parking lot:

A couple of months ago, I was leaving the store about 8:30 at night when I noticed an elderly woman pushing her shopping cart into the vast expanse of empty parking lot. The scene struck me as odd because, it being winter in Minnesota, the sun was well beyond set, the weather was nippy, and she appeared to be going in the direction of nowhere with no identifiable car in her line of sight. I shrugged it off and got in my car to head home. A few hundred yards later, as I was exiting the lot, there was the woman again except now she was waving at me. I slowed down and paused a moment wondering what to do. Did she need my help? Was I about to get myself into a situation with a “crazy” lady? I uttered a quick prayer for wisdom and rolled down my window.

She politely asked if I was going in the direction of Western Avenue, which was along my route home. When I confirmed I was, she asked if I might be willing to drive her home. Though I knew better than to really be concerned that she might harm me, I ran through a quick mental checklist anyway of the ways one might avoid being murdered by a stranger. “Establish a personal connection” was one counsel that came to mind, so I asked her name and inquired how she had been planning to get home.

“My name is Miss Mackenzie,” she answered. She explained she had been planning to take the bus, but it had gotten late, and the bus was so complicated anyway. Then she added, “And, it’s just so much nicer to have somebody to talk to.” I was sold. I made room in my backseat for her groceries and we began our drive home. I learned about her years as a flight attendant, what she studied in college, the places she had lived, the languages she spoke… She was a fountain of words. Arriving at her senior living facility, she thanked me and promised that whether it mattered to me, she would pray for me. The truth is, it mattered so much to me.

Strong Towns provides the context for Sara Joy’s encounter, explaining what sort of things are important characteristics of great communities:

Sara Joy’s essay below is simple and beautiful, and it highlights a tremendously important topic: the impact of our auto-oriented cities on senior citizens. There’s a popular trend in the media right now of talking about how traditional downtowns and urban cores are the “playgrounds of the rich” where young people flock so that they can walk to breweries and restaurants and live in trendy converted warehouses… In fact, walkable neighborhoods are attractive to and needed for people of all ages. Seniors in particular benefit from neighborhoods where they can safely run errands, visit friends, and go about their days without needing a vehicle, since many of them cannot drive.

Unfortunately, most of our cities are designed in a way that makes life nearly impossible for people who don’t drive. And the dangers of un-walkable neighborhoods where cars speed through and pedestrians must contend with crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks, unsafe intersections, and so on… well they’re actually most harmful to the most vulnerable members of our communities: kids and seniors. A simple moment in a grocery store parking lot brought that home for Sara Joy…

Nittany Valley snowfall

BlueWhiteTV produced this calm and enchanting short film, “A Snowy Day in Happy Valley,” shot last winter. It captures some of the most beautiful spaces in town and on campus:

It would be beautiful to watch a similar video with scenes from Mount Nittany, Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, the Indian Steps, and other wilder spots in and around our valley.

When people talk about there being “something in the water up there in Happy Valley,” little vignettes like this do so much to answer why that feeling exists. That sense of a specialness of place or of a genius loci exists because there’s real community there, and real little towns with main streets, and a beautiful and coherent and aesthetically complementary campus, and a charming and architecturally layered State College borough, and wonderful little hamlets surrounding them on all sides.

Dandelion

The Dandelion at 18th and Sansom in Center City, Philadelphia is one of my favorite spots. It’s the sort of place you can dress up for or dress down for without feeling out place, which means that even a spontaneous dinner can have a degree of class and character and an overall tone that’s tough for many places to offer so easily upon walking through the door.

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It’s one of the many great spots in Center City that has an energy that flows out into the streets in warmer weather, and that prompted an older visiting friend this year in the warmer autumn who hadn’t spent time in Philadelphia in many years to comment that Center City felt “practically European” in the sense of being walkable and lively and “tight” even late into the night.

Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:

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Rathskeller

I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:

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The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:

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Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.

New York zoning codes

Forty percent of Manhattan could not be built today:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city.

The bays and cliffs of the Empire State Building come from zoning, as do the arcades and plazas of Park Avenue. The code gave us Zuccotti Park and Billionaire’s Row, the quietude of Greenwich Village and the bustle of the High Line, the glass towers now lining the formerly industrial waterfront and the portion of subsidized apartments that fill them.

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. …

Whole swaths of the city defy current zoning rules. In Manhattan alone, roughly two out of every five buildings are taller, bulkier, bigger or more crowded than current zoning allows, according to data compiled by Stephen Smith and Sandip Trivedi. They run Quantierra, a real estate firm that uses data to look for investment opportunities.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today.

It is important to note that these estimates rely on public records that can be imperfect. Still, while the data may at times be imprecise, it allows for an insightful view of zoning in New York.

Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now: Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side). Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.

“Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”

As the zoning code enters its second century, it is worth considering the ways it has shaped the city; whether and where it is still working; and how it might be altered so the city can continue to grow without obliterating everything New Yorkers love about it. …

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Astounding to realize that the vast majority of Manhattan’s square footage came into being in thirty years. Even stranger to realize how much of what’s beloved is impossible to replicate today, in an allegedly more enlightened time. If we want greater affordability, a liberalization of the codes to achieve something between the codes of the present and the tenement-friendly practices of the past seems reasonable.