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Defining community culture

Column by George Sibley

Comunity – April 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE TOPIC OF THE DAY for the Gunnison City Master Plan Update Steering Committee a couple of weeks ago was “Community Culture,” and the veerings and rambles of that discussion have been lurking in the back of my mind ever since.

The discussion went pretty quickly to complaints about a really junky property on one of the approaches to town — a collection of old shacks and ramshackle sheds which seem to be used mostly for storing the same kind of junk that fills the yards around the buildings.

From laments about the kind of first impression that property creates for visitors, the discussion broadened to a more general lament about other “eyesores” around town, and the difficulty of getting such places cleaned up, despite a city ordinance which enables the city to go in, after a certain number of warnings, and clean up such messes and bill the owner.

From this discussion, one could infer that, in our “community culture” tidiness and a pretty appearance are high on the list of qualities we deem culturally important for our community. But this does nothing to explain the fact that, for the four decades I have been living in or near Gunnison, that same collection of shacks and junk has been slowly rotting away out on the edge of town. That property was probably the poster display for citizens pushing Gunnison’s anti- mess ordinance when it was passed sometime last century.

So if it is our “community culture” to maintain a tidy property, at least on the visible exterior — and for most of the people in the city, it is — why do we have these eyesores that are literally a sty in the eye for a lot of residents?

An answer to that emerges out of a personal brush with that law. The ordinance covers the number of “abandoned vehicles” one may have on one’s property, and 15 years ago or so, back when I was still hanging onto my middle-class origins by my fingernails, I had two vehicles awaiting repair in my yard.

One was my classic old 1941 Jeep pickup which had grown tired of running; the other was an $800 Honda I’d bought to replace my $300 Toyota, but it had thrown a rod on Monarch Pass. And when it wasn’t in motion, my Toyota looked a lot like an abandoned vehicle, too.

So one spring day, a policeman showed up at my door and very politely told me that the city had a special deal: they would haul all of my “abandoned vehicles” to the junkyard at no charge, thereby putting me in compliance with the law.

I, every bit as politely, told him there was a mistake; the vehicles weren’t abandoned, they were just awaiting repair. “Oh,” he said — his note of skepticism not quite obvious but lurking — “Well, they’ve been there so long….” Only a year, really, I pointed out, and said I was sure I’d find time to get around to them that summer. So he apologized for the misunderstanding, and that was that.

THE SUMMER AFTER that summer, both vehicles were still there, unrepaired, but I faced the reality of my situation (I was employed full-time), and found good homes for both of the vehicles. I gave the Honda away, and sold the Jeep for $300 to a guy down the street. It then sat in his backyard for two years, but he finally fixed it up and turned it into — of all things — a racing vehicle.

But in the interim year, I never heard another word from the city about my offenses against the community culture, and for all I know I could have kept them there till they rusted back into the earth.

So it occurs to me that there is another, deeper strain to the community culture than the desire to be a tidy and pretty town, and that is a “live and let live” philosophy, in which “a man’s home is his castle.” I might not like what my neighbor does on his property, but it’s his property and none of my business. And when it comes down to resolving the conflict between those two aspects of the community culture, the “live and let live” philosophy trumps the desire to live in a tidy town.

The pressure caused by that generally unsatisfactory resolution is released through complaining about the mess to everyone but the person with the mess. This “safety valve” — which usually keeps people from going over and setting fire to a neighbor’s ugly yard — is also part of our community culture.

There’s another residual strain of community culture implicit in this situation that is probably disappearing from most of our communities today. This is the local application of the Aldo Leopold maxim: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Keeping every cog and wheel, and every busted lawnmower and refrigerator too, doesn’t, of course, lead automatically to intelligent tinkering — but it is an acknowledged first step.

MY FATHER, a child of the Great Depression, kept cans of used nuts and bolts, nails, screws, et cetera on a shelf in his shed, and I do too — and I’ve only rarely had a nut or bolt emergency where I couldn’t find what I needed, usually in a little less time than it would have taken to run to the hardware store. But the ranchers in the valley are really the standard-setters here — talk about vehicles awaiting repair! You can tell how established and stable a ranch is by the size of its VAR lot. And other stuff too — a rancher friend told me once (shaking a piece off his boot), “If you need a piece of baling wire, just take five steps in any direction.”

That’s community culture too — or was, anyway. Today, though, there’s just too much stuff, and most of us don’t have the kind of space a rancher does to store it. A lot of stuff today is quite literally made to be thrown away when it malfunctions (although the cost of disposal isn’t built into the price). Nonetheless, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I have three old telephones, two phone- faxes, an old MacIntosh computer and a few other electronic odds and ends in a closet, and no idea where any of them will ever be useful. But you never know till you need them.

Today, I acknowledge, that might be just personal idiosyncrasy, no longer community culture. So I won’t, as it were, come out of the closet with it. And I keep a reasonably tidy yard these days — although that’s more through the efforts of my partner than myself.

But I’m not going to lead any charge to make everyone else keep a tidy yard too — and if that results in some newcomers being so offended that they decide to build their retirement mansion in Montrose or Durango instead, that’s fine with me.

There is a downside to a “live and let live” community culture. Those inclined to beat wives, children, and other mammals like that philosophy, as do a lot of other nasty sorts. But for the long haul, “live and let live” — within the bounds of decency and no physical damage to others — has proven to be a reasonably workable community culture.

George Sibley accumulates material and exports prose from Gunnison, where he professes at Western State College.