One Student’s Reflections on the Course

Restoring Neighborhoods, Building Relationships

As a law student, I have always looked forward to my few, carefully chosen elective courses.  Neighborhood Development . . . became one of those electives for which I held great expectations. . . . I had just completed a public service externship with the Federal Public Defender’s office.  There, my already substantial bent toward public service had become even more pronounced in my mind, with regard to my life’s work.  So, it was with a sense of anticipation that I looked forward to participating in the Neighborhood Development course.  I knew that it would be a valuable learning experience.  However, by the end of the semester, it had become much more than that.  Not only were all of my expectations for this course met, but I found myself engaged in a way that I could have never foreseen.  This course became significant not for the work that I did, but for the relationships that I made—in essence, the community of which I became a part.

Quoting these words from Margaret Mead best illustrate the lesson that I will take from my participation in the Neighborhood Development course: “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Therein lies the truth about the committed neighborhood men and women I began to serve alongside, as we started the semester.  In the community’s small way, in our classes’ small way, we were seeking to change the world around us that our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents left, in search of safer, cheaper, and less urban pastures.  The expertise that our class brought was the law, as we worked to restore the community.  Community—an idea that includes the character of the old neighborhoods, the interdependence of neighbors, parish churches, and even the soup brought next door to a sick neighbor.  Fitting, our legal expertise for such a venture, because I believe the law is the framework for good conduct that allows the best in everyone to flourish.

It is the famous Robert Kennedy quote, “Some men see things as they are and say why.  I dream things that never were and say why not,” that is the banner slogan of how I began this semester of work.  I remember driving through the neighborhood at dusk one evening before class even began. “Kinda scary,” I thought, as I breezed through at 20 miles an hour, looking quickly through the driver’s side window.   Let me point out, I approached the area from the east end of 12th Street, and I now know that this was not the best idea.  Nonetheless, as I made my way into the neighborhood, I recall thinking that it was such a pity that this once proud, middle class neighborhood was undeniably deteriorating. Why, I thought, did this have to happen?  Later, as we walked together down those same streets, on a crisp day, with a bright sky, my fellow classmates and professors sharing thoughts and ideas about various aspects of the old neighborhood, it became, for me, more a question of “why not.”  It occurs to me now that, perhaps, what a neighborhood is in need of most is—community—which is really no surprise.  As we walked together, with like minds, positive ideas, and a true sense that we are all in this together, a feeling of community began to take shape.  Every old neighborhood is longing for the sense of community.  On that day, it was in the air.

In thinking of community, I sense from many people my age, and even younger, a longing for the old neighborhoods, where people encountered one another in their everyday lives.  I recall a day when houses actually had front porches, and not back decks, where neighbors came to sit and visit, gossip, and to catch up on the news.  Fathers and sons mowed the lawn, and maybe even mowed the spinster lady’s yard next door.  When finished, drenched with sweat, they would sit down for a glass of iced tea, and would wave to the neighbor across the street who was trimming the bushes, pulling weeds, and conversation began—a narrative of life.

Mothers and daughters, just home from shopping, parked in the driveway or covered parking.  Automatic garage doors, where today, neighbors get swallowed up and become silently entombed by the closing of the door, even before the key is turned off in the automobile ignition did not exist.  No, the situation was quite the opposite.  As people unloaded their groceries, or their clothing sacks from J.C. Penney, they would strike up a conversation with the neighbor across the street washing his car.  Good will was exchanged in the encounter, a sense of trust was established, and one more check marked on the list of good things about your neighborhood.  Because, the truth is, we are always at our best in encounter.   That is what we lost when we began to build McMansions, refrigerating ourselves indoors, our faces stuck in front of a cathode ray tube, and lost in time forever is the chance encounter that made us nicer and more neighborly people, than we otherwise might have been.

One of the surprising elements of taking this class is how much time I spent thinking about the small town where I will practice law.  Camden, Arkansas is a town of about 10,000 residents that was fortunate enough to have had some smart, popular, politicians call home: United States Senator John McClellan, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and United States Senator David Pryor, everyone’s best friend in the Senate.  John McClelland was instrumental in helping Camden receive a large number of government grants to build an Industrial Park where industries like Stromberg-Carlson, General Dynamics, and military defense plants, such as, Lockheed-Martin and Spectra Technologies were built that employed much of the population.  Also, because of the dense forests in south Arkansas, a very large International Paper Company plant was located in Camden.  These industries raised the standard of living in the county for generations. However, with the economic downturn, many of the defense plants closed, and not long after, the mainstay of Camden’s livelihood, International Paper Company, closed its doors.

The result of losing the industrial base and the factory work in the area was devastating.  The real estate market plummeted.  Those who lost their jobs were forced to sell their homes at reduced prices just so they could quickly relocate in search of employment.  One neighborhood, in particular, comes to mind that is a tree lined street of towering southern mansions, built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, all on large lots with sweeping magnolia trees, pecan trees, and huge old oaks.  The houses have fallen in disrepair, and the wood lathe porches, along with the wood exteriors are chipped, cracked, and sagging.  I have been inside several of the old homes, with their sweeping staircases, marble mantles, crystal chandeliers, and kitchen dumbwaiters.  It was such a shame to see the windows boarded up, and to know that this street was no longer safe at night.  Like other areas in Camden, it had become a known drug hangout. Could I motivate enough people, create enough energy around the project to save Cherry Street.

In my mind’s eye, every step we took, I took on Cherry Street. Every plan we made, I planned for the old Georgian mansion, third house on the right.  Most of the middle class have left Camden looking for work, for a better education for their children, for white-only neighborhoods, or for another chance to live the American dream.  Those who have remained in town make up Camden’s “old money,” having invested too much in the town to leave, and then there are those who live from paycheck to paycheck, that can’t make it out of town.  My concern is that, as I walk down the street, as my fellow students and I and our professors did that first day of class, will there be anyone in Camden to walk with me?

Robert F. Kennedy concluded his quote with “why not.”  He did so because he honestly believed that one person could make a difference, regardless of the odds.  And, in fact, history supports his claim that many of the “world’s great movements have flowed from the work of a single individual.” Consider, for example, paraphrasing from his eulogy, that it was one young monk who began the Protestant reformation; one young general who extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; one young woman who reclaimed the territory of France; one young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and it was 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who claimed that “all men are created equal.”  I do not think many, if any, of us hope for such historical significance in our commitment to public service, but instead, in every one of the stories a narrative exists into which we dream to step, to be one small part—because changing the world, and being committed to something that you believe in, is always worth the sacrifice.  Ask any one of those mentioned above.  I reserve my comment only for the heroic Joan of Arc— if she wants to rethink her position, I have to say—I completely understand.

From a practice standpoint, I truly enjoyed the title search.  William Shakespeare wrote, “[T]here is a history in all men’s lives.”  Nothing could make that clearer than the trove of history discovered in the title search.  I was struck by the cold, hard ink of the many names, financial transactions, agreements, negotiations, and disagreements reflected in the transfer of real estate.  In fact, in between the cold hard lines of a title search, lie the stories of the lives invested, the hearts broken, the baseballs tossed and batted through the next door neighbor’s window, the creek of the rocking chair through half the night of baby’s teething, and the little old lady that would sometimes give you a cookie, until she fell one afternoon and had to go to live with her sister.  Tracing the transfers on paper, made me realize that, within each, there was a history, a narrative that was missing for every Grantor and Grantee, their heirs and assigns. It makes me think that along with the multitude of documents of transfer, that, perhaps, both buyer and seller should be required to write a short essay either saying hello, I’m your new owner, this is who we are, and how we got here, or good-bye old home, this is why we must, or want to go, and how the time here has changed us.  The title search tells us so much, but it does not give us the whole story.  I can only imagine what this kind of introspection might do for the lives of the buyers and sellers of real property—thinking not only about the transaction itself—but also, thinking about the deeper meaning of home ownership, and how they each came to this point in the narrative of their lives.

In fact, journaling causes its own introspection of who we are and how we got here.  From the first journal entry, I was hooked.  It is only man who has meta-cognition, the ability to think about our thinking. Journaling is organized, intentional, and truly meta-cognition.  Confucius actually did say, “Learning without reflection is a waste.”  We live in the age of multi-tasking where we could never complete our duties of the day if we didn’t eat, talk on our cell phones, and read while we drive.  The journaling exercises for this class required that I take a moment, sit quietly, and actually think about what we had talked about, the actions we had taken, the plans we were dreaming of, and make paragraphs of it all.  The past of the title search, the present of the work we were doing, and the future of the neighborhood were brought together in hard printer’s ink, and provided a narrative for our Neighborhood Development class.

We will never pass this way again. Even in the next moment, we, ourselves, have changed; the wind has blown, and a single strand of hair is out of place.  In the task of writing the words about the past, the present, and our plans for the future, we are capturing, like the homeowner, who we are, how we got here, and why we must or want to go, and how the time here has changed us.  In journaling for this class, I found myself, like the homeowner, a part of a community.  A community of relationships that will be a part of me forever, but do not look for those in the title search. . . they will not be there.