Beatnik Beat: Neighborhood Commerce

by Jan Christensen

…and she feeds you tea and oranges/that come all the way from China… –“Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen

There was a time, not long ago, when items transported from one part of the world to another were exotic, romantic–the stuff of poets and adventurers. Now the simplest of our tools and toys, the clothes we wear while we clean the garage, even the lettuce in our salads were grown or produced in another country. But in a strange reversal, there is a new standard for the exotic and interesting. Items that are hand-made, close to home, by people we know, have taken on a cache of glamour. Neighborhood Exotica I have a friend who makes tinctures and salves and homemade soap. Someone else I know makes handcrafted hemp and velvet clothing. A third friend grows sprouts in jars, and gives them to me as part of a barter agreement. So I have mysterious bottles of scents on my dresser. My wardrobe is enhanced with exotic items I could not otherwise afford. My dinner salads are tasty and healthful. These small producers in my neighborhood create beautifully handcrafted, unique items that enrich my life in ways that nothing purchased at a chain store ever could. When I buy those items, I feel like I am being of direct benefit to people I know and see every day; people I enjoy having as part of my life. Neighborhood Enrichment Wendell Berry, elder statesman of common sense and political poetry, puts it this way. “In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighborhood, than in their bank accounts. It is better, therefore, even if the cost is greater, to buy near at hand than to buy at a distance.” Even on second or third reading, this idea may seem counterintuitive. If I have less money in my bank account, how can I afford to spend more in order to buy near at hand? Going back to the example of my own life, I can begin to see how this works in practice. It has to do with what I choose to buy. Let’s select one example and follow it through. Because I buy locally-made cosmetics, I don’t buy commercial cosmetics. One bottle of homemade essential oil might cost twice as much as a commercial perfume. However, I use it sparingly, so it lasts much longer. And I get more pleasure from it, because it is unlike anything I can purchase from a store. I know exactly what is in the product. I know it was not tested on animals. But I know it is safe, because it has been used for generations. I know where it came from. I know it was not shipped in, so less fossil fuel is used to deliver it. In order to purchase it, I had only to walk. I did not have to drive my car, or even take the bus. Again, no use of fossil fuel. Finally, I have the pleasure of offering support to a neighbor. So when it is time to buy the next bottle of oil, it will still be available, within walking distance. And my neighbor may wish to buy something from me, and she will have money to do so. So my money stays local. My buying habits buy me peace of mind and greater pleasure in my possessions. And I am part of a network that helps and supports one another. Neighborhood Safety “Wars are fought on the level of consciousness,” says Starhawk, activist and thealogian [thea = “goddess; theo = “god”]. Wars can only be fought if everyone is convinced that all the decisions are already made, and no one has any choice. The truth is, each person has a choice every moment about everything. The application for our neighborhood is this: If we have the kind of neighborhood where it is simply unthinkable for people to shoot guns in the alleyway, beat dogs to make them vicious, or throw trash on the streets, that behavior will stop. How we get from this point to that point is a long serious of choices made by each person in the community. One big step in that direction is to have people moving about in the community, going into public places of business, and interacting. That’s called neighborhood commerce. Neighborhood Mindset There’s a modern saying, “Think globally, act locally.” The idea is supposed to be, think about the impact of your everyday actions on the planet. Unfortunately, the outcome of this concept is more often, “Where in the world can I put my mess so I don’t have to deal with it?” What we actually need to do is think locally and act locally. We need to be aware of the impact of our choices. Throwing garbage on the sidewalk is bad. Throwing garbage in the dumpster is marginally better, but there is only so much space on the planet for dumps. The best idea is to generate less trash; to remember that when we throw things “away” there is really no “away” to throw things to. One person’s “away” is another person’s back yard. Likewise, we can’t throw people away, either. We can’t deal with neighbors we don’t like by forcing them to move. We need to interact, communicate, change ourselves and each other, and find ways to live together and enrich each other. If our neighbors are in need, we need to help them. If we are in need, we need to ask for help. Neighborhood commerce is about the exchange of goods and services, of information and opinions. That’s what “neighbor-hood” is about. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 2 – March 2002