A Short and Incomplete History of Neighbourhoods. With a Very Western European Slant.

So I was on the phone to my aunt just now and I mentioned how we were possibly going to be in the market for another place, and didn’t that suck because this was where I wanted to be, and she pointed out something I’d thought of often before, but then I took it a step farther and had one of those connective Eureka moments. So.

She pointed out that good neighbourhoods are like small towns. You see many, many familiar faces every day.

I said, yes, and then MY HEAD EXPLODED!

Let’s take it back a while.

People need groups. We learned, at the dawn of time, that there have to be people who go out to find food and people who stay home to keep a fire going. I do not have a degree in anthropology, but I do know that, even when people lived in caves and migrated with the caribou, we needed folks to do different things. Periodically, a group would be diminished by disease or starvation, or, in good times, would swell ranks so that it would put a strain on the resources the area had to offer. So a group would splinter off to another place, and the cycle would begin again. The point is, the extended family, clan, tribe, or whatever you want to call it, enriched the lives of individuals.

Several thousand years pass. The time we call the Early Middle Ages is upon Western Europe. There’s not a lot to eat, but people still stick together in small villages, because sticking together is a whole lot easier than going it alone. Down around the Mediterranean and environs, things are a little more advanced, probably because it’s warmer and there are more crops to barter for money to build stuff, such as Constantinople, which was founded in AD 324. Also, the Roman Empire allows for more ease of travel, owing to roads and garrisons of soldiers around the place. Where there are people who can work together, and the weather and health conditions permit, there is surplus, there is trade, and there is advancement. Still, people sticking together.

Up in Northern Europe, Bodo the Peasant is still calling a turnip a mighty good dinner, especially if they stew it with some of Gona’s cow’s milk, and have it with some of the bread that Wat, from the village, made. Sticking together, but not as glamorously as them down south. Nevertheless, Bodo trades turnips for Wat’s bread, who trades bread for Gona’s cow’s milk, and so on. They all benefit.

The Dark Ages continue pretty much this way for 90% of Europeans. But it would have been a hell of a lot harsher if they didn’t have one another to depend on.

Even from the Iron age, settlements were quite regularly spaced. Generally, any market town was only about a half-day’s walk from the villages and hamlets around it. That way, they could get up at dawn and go to the market, to sell any surplus produce or handicrafts they had produced, and be back home quickly enough. A market town was generally on some kind of river or stream, for transportation purposes. Market towns still weren’t big, but at least they were a place for people to meet, exchange news, contract agreements, etc.

Bigger settlements were also usually on rivers. Paris, which was founded by parisii Celts in 250BC, made a name for itself early on as a trading center. The original settlement is on the island in the middle of the Seine, the better to defend from invaders. Insular, yes. Smart, also yes.

But the years go by. There is more and more extra food, which means more babies live. Higher population overall. But in Bodo and Wat and Gona’s village, the population outstrips what the land can support. What happens? Influx to bigger communities. People go to the cities to learn a specialized trade. And what happens in the cities? It’s crowded. It’s dirty. It’s noisy, compared to Good Old Home.

People get homesick. They see the people they work with every day, and those people become kind of a surrogate family. They promise to look out for one another, they know each other’s families, and the drink and celebrate feasts together. Voila! The guilds are born! Of course, the guilds were instrumental in bringing order to the chaos of a free-market economy as well. But people did what people do: They worked together for the better good of all.

The Black Death reduced Europe’s population by a full third, and there was some turbulence afterward. Whole villages were wiped out, particularly those where houses were closest together and people saw each other several times a day. In the cities, it was even worse. But did that stop people? Untimately, no. They worked together to rebuild what was lost. Ironically, the cull of population meant that the survivors had more food, once the system was set back up, and so they could grow stronger, travel farther afield, and meet new people and see new places.

The Renaissance saw a continuation of the growth in towns, and people working together. The idea of a Master’s studio, with tons of apprentices and journeymen working together really came into its own at ths time, particularly in the Arts. Michelangelo didn’t work alone. There were people watching, learning, and the lucky ones were painting backgrounds or copying rough sketches.

The Industrial Revolution came along. More resources, bigger population. More crowding in the cities. More need, than ever before, for people to look out for one another, even if they live in hovels. So they do. Think of the linguists who could tell a person’s birthplace, in London, to within a few streets. That didn’t happen by accident. People stick together, especially in the hard times.

Think of settlement in the New World. People settled in groups, to work together. Heck, even fur trappers needed guides and support as they mapped their way across the continent.

So it comes down to 2006. I need a neighbourhood. I need the people I depend on, from the guy at the corner store, who has an opinion about whatever issue, to the neighbourhood pub, where I make my opinions known. If the Industrial Revolution comes and I have to find a new home, I will still need support. I need to trade a turnip for a cup of milk.

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