What Happens in Chautauqua Will Come to My Neighborhood

Here's a gang of kids playing chess at Chautauqua's Bestor Plaza. photo: Flickr.com user rwjensen

“I want to propose a toast to not knowing where our kids are, and not thinking about it.”

My wife and I were having dinner at the summer home of our good friends, parents of three boys almost identical in age to ours, at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York when I made that toast last week. Indeed, five of our six kids, ages two through seven, were playing somewhere outside, all on their own.

Sure, we had some idea where they probably were, but the fact is that we hadn’t seen them in at least forty-five minutes, and we were absorbed in adult conversation.

This was a unique situation for all of us, especially for our friends. However, it fit with the place. Chautaqua in the summer is about as early-20th Century-like as you can get in the early 21st Century. It’s swarming with pedestrians outside from dawn to beyond dusk. Cars are very rare, and the few that venture out move as fast as the swarm of pedestrians that largely ignores them.

The amount of freedom that children routinely enjoy there is a wonder to behold. In fact, it rivals the freedom of children in my neighborhood when I was a kid. One can’t take an afternoon or evening stroll without seeing a number of child groups – singles, doubles, and large packs of kids – wandering freely. Certainly, the majority of these are teenagers, but children of age ten and younger wandering freely are also quite common.

The value of these independence experiences for children is profound. They get to decide where to go and with whom. They encounter unexpected things (e.g. other people, other options for activities), and they must make decisions on their own.

So, is this a perfect childhood? Well, it may be close to perfect, but it’s not a childhood. It’s one week (or two or three or more) out of 52. That’s a respite from life, not real life. If a family wanted to make a life at Chautauqua, it would be very lonely 44 weeks out of the year.

The Chautauqua Institution, in which myriad fun programs are run for adults and children, lasts for eight weeks in the summer. The rest of the year, that same place is sparsely populated, and very lonely. I know of a few other family vacation communities like Chautauqua. Seaside, the iconic New Urbanist community in the panhandle of Florida, is another example. It’s a remarkably vibrant community in the summer, and it’s much less so in the winter.

I dearly hope that families that attend places like Chautauqua and Seaside for a week or two each year bring some of that culture back to their neighborhoods. I hope that their kids don’t completely forget how to roam on their own, and I hope parents don’t completely forget how to let their kids go. Maybe, during the rest of the year, they’ll cut their kids a break one more afternoon a week. If these communities had this impact, I’d be very happy.

However, there’s a darker possibility. It’s quite possible that the family puts that vibrant community culture on a shelf when it returns home, only rekindling it the next year at Chautauqua, much like visitors to Las Vegas who only gamble and go wild when they’re in Vegas. Do you recall the advertising slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?” In other words, families might put their Chautauqua and Seaside experiences into a box, with the idea that it’s nice, but it’s a vacation, like traveling back in time, and has nothing to do with real life today.

What that family’s neighborhood would be left with is a house that offers zero vitality during the weeks the family is at Chautauqua or Seaside, and next to no vitality the rest of the year as well.

Which of these two routes these families take depends, I think, on the extent to which they believe that deeply vibrant communities are possible in 21st Century America. I believe very strongly that they are, and I write quite a bit on the tactics and strategy of how to make that happen here at Playborhood.com.

Communities like Chautauqua and Seaside show us that they’re possible. They’re not movies like The Truman Show, which was produced in a real-life community like these, Celebration in Florida. Yes, they’re only deeply vibrant in the summer, but they show us what’s possible in our own communities.

We need to believe in these examples, and we need to care enough about our own family lives to work toward those models. “What happens in Chautauqua will come to my neighborhood.” Yes, let’s make it happen!

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