Friday, April 23, 2004
"Lonelyville" revisited: where (and with whom) it began
Bentley became anonymously "famous" when she responded to the Planning Board's request to reveal some of the negative aspects about life in Carlisle. "A mother of small children proposed that two-acre zoning works against a sense of community, fostering the development of large, isolated housing units where people can spend days or weeks without any contact with their neighbors," wrote Mosquito reporter Darragh Murphy for the March 28, 2003 edition. "She described this type of neighborhood as 'Lonelyville,' and said Carlisle sometimes feels like just that."
After writing articles responding to this sad comment and interviewing residents on ways in which they successfully connect with neighbors and fight loneliness, I made a public plea for the woman to reveal her identity. "Who coined 'Lonelyville'?" I asked in the August 1, 2003 edition of the Mosquito. "We would like to hear from the Carlisle resident who first made this reference at a planning day in March. We'd like to know if she is surprised at the community response to her comment.... If you prefer to remain anonymous, we will respect your privacy. We'd just love to hear how you're doing."
It took a full year however, for Bentley to come forward. Why? "Everyone had their own version of what 'Lonelyville' meant. It was much more interesting to sit back and see what might unfold," she admitted in her gentle Scottish accent with a twinkle in her eye. As she read articles and letters to the editor on the subject, "I thought it was interesting to see people's points of view," she said. "It's something we don't often get to see in Carlisle, since there's no informal meeting area, no pub or café."
Although I (and perhaps others) had pictured the "Lonelyville" woman as a shy, isolated creature peering out of curtained windows and longing for the sight of a passing neighbor, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Debbie Bentley is none of these things. A British architect who runs her own design business here in Carlisle, she is strong and outspoken (many heard her comments on the Benfield land acquistion during a recent Town Meeting), and far too busy to spend time wishing things were different. She is someone who takes action. In fact, when she first moved to Carlisle in 1997 with her husband and a toddler, she not only discussed the need for a playground in Carlisle for small children, she ended up designing one. Bentley used her architectural skills to design the Diment Park Tot Lot on Church Street, which continues to serve as a safe gathering place for young children and their parents.
It is this sense of activism that led Bentley to make her comments about "Lonelyville." The term itself, she says, was taken from the book Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life, by Dolores Hayden (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), which Bentley had finished reading just before the Planning Board's public forum last year. As an architect, studying communities that make sense and serve their residents is something of a passion for her. (In fact, Bentley recently served as moderator for a workshop in Boston which featured Hayden, titled "Livable Cities, Smart Growth," as part of the Women in Design Conference at Build Boston.)
Interestingly enough, Hayden writes in her book that the term dates back to the years just after the Civil War, when young couples found they couldn't afford homes in the city. "The last resort was to move to 'Lonelyville,' as one young wife called it, remote suburbs where...the busy men leave on early trains [and] the suburban woman remains at home, standing behind the struggling young vines of her brand new piazza," writes Hayden.
But although the concept of "Lonelyville" can take its toll on anyone who feels isolated, Bentley says her biggest concern in Carlisle is the lack of social opportunities for children and teenagers. "The environment here is unfriendly to children. There is always a great to-do about the physical environment, but we never seem to be thinking about the other environments, like the social environment in which our children learn social behavior," she asserts. Although she says it's fairly easy for adults to find ways to build community, too often Carlisle "ignores a third of its population — the children.
"Wouldn't it be interesting to find out what the kids would like in their town?" she suggests in her typical let's-do-something-about-this fashion. "Say to them, 'Design your town,' and see what they come up with."
Bentley has plenty of other ideas as well, about how to improve the way we use our community buildings and town center, how we might make money for the town at the same time we're making improvements, and how we can develop an informal meeting area like a coffee shop. Obviously, we covered a lot of ground during our leisurely lunch.
My thoughts now on "Lonelyville?" Let's keep the discussion going. Let's keep on looking for ways to build community and make connections. Going out to lunch with an interesting neighbor is a fabulous place to start.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito