How Television Changed the Neighborhood

I had a first time meeting with a first time entrepreneur. He is a talented young man with an idea needing some serious testing. As I explored his background, I discovered he has a 98-year-old Italian grandmother. She came to America in 1914, which was right after my mom came to this country.

I said, “You are blessed with a great grandmother in your life. Do you realize how unusual that is? Is she still healthy?”

“She is as sharp mentally as anyone I know,” he replied.

I said, “Have you talked to her about the history of your family? She is a wealth of important information and insights about your family, your values and our American culture.”

“I call her every week. When I am in New York I make a point to visit with her so I can sit, listen and learn. On my last visit, I asked her what was the biggest change she experienced in our culture.”

His grandmother said, “Everyone in our neighborhood would come out to talk with each other every night. Then came the TV. As more and more people in our neighborhood got a TV set, they came out and talked less and less. As TV programming progressed, we stopped seeing each other every night. It had a terrible impact on our community.”

Charlie in Jersey City

I grew up in Jersey City in the late fifties and sixties. I graduated from high school in 1971 when I was eighteen and went to college in Miami, Florida.

We lived in two family, two story factory row houses which were built in the 1930’s. Every house was the same. One thousand square feet on each floor. Three tiny bedrooms, one bath and a tiny living room. We had a black and white console TV which received the three major networks.

I went home to eat and sleep. If not eating and sleeping, I was outside with my friends. We strolled the neighborhood. We played football in the fall, stickball in the spring and box ball in the summer, and we climbed the 20 foot fence of PS38 to play basketball in the fall. We were always outside hanging out.

But so was everyone else. Every night, every family would be sitting on their front porch. We used to call them stoops. Six feet wide with five steps leading into the shared vestibule of the house.

People knew all the kids in the neighborhood, and they knew each other really well. No secrets in this community.

Death of Neighborhood Community

I remember getting our first color TV console. The first show I remember seeing in color was “The Wizard of Oz.” I was mesmerized. Then came “Batman.” I never missed an episode. Then football and baseball was broadcast in color.

I started scheduling my time around TV shows. I was hooked. It only got worse as I got older and TV replaced hanging out with friends.

By contrast, my kids grew up with hundreds of cable channels, Blockbuster videos, laser discs, surround sound, computer games, and game consoles. Conversation ended. If that wasn’t enough, the internet arrived, and our communities were a thing of the past. Sad.

We now build neighborhood communities around scheduled events. Dinner parties, Bible studies, family get togethers, Super Bowl parties and the like. Entertainment is now our personal community. Us and the TV. That’s it.

We are too self-centered, scheduled and preoccupied to just hang out.

Workplace Discovers Community

Although that sense of community was lost in my neighborhood, I regained it in my workplace. With no TV’s allowed, the workplace is where we commune.

In fact, the new office designs eliminate all offices and put us in a big open space so we can share ideas and build businesses faster. As a by-product, they also build community which we so desperately need.

I took my son David back to the old neighborhood in 2005. As we stood across the street from my childhood home, an old woman came out of the house behind us. I thought I recognized her.

I asked, “Are you Mrs. Demateo?”

“Yes. I am.”

“I’m Charlie Paparelli. How old are you?” I asked.

She said, “I am 92.”

She then proceeded to give me an update on every family I grew up with. She knew the 50-year history of that neighborhood. Listening to her was a real treat.

I miss that.

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