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Opinion >  Column

Paul Turner: Nosy neighbors behind the rural-urban divide

So you must have wondered at one time or another: In the Inland Northwest, what really is the essential difference between people who live in town and those who reside out in the country?

Perhaps you are familiar with some of the usual theories.

Different expectations for ambulance response times.

More scenic or at least bucolic surroundings out in the country.

Rural firearms caches on different scale.

Greater population in town of those who steal packages from porches.

Then there are the classic self-image myths. You know, urban residents viewing themselves as culturally sophisticated while rural residents think of themselves as ruggedly self-sufficient.

Admittedly, these are broad generalizations. Still, there might be a trace of truth to some of that.

But I’ve studied this informally for years. And I think the real difference between city people and country people in our part of the Northwest is this. Those who live in Spokane or Coeur d’Alene spend more time observing their neighbors and muttering “What on Earth are they doing over there?”

Those who reside out in the country find other diversions.

Doesn’t sound like much of a difference maybe. But being able to see your neighbor’s place from your kitchen window presents spectator opportunities rural residents seldom enjoy.

OK, I’m not saying every city dweller is like busybody Gladys Kravitz in the classic sitcom, “Bewitched.” Nor am I suggesting those out in the country do not keep track of neighbors. Often, they do. It’s just, well, different.

In town, even those who don’t know their neighbors’ names can find themselves monitoring everything from the installation of a new garage door to trash barrels being rolled out on the wrong day (failure to factor for a holiday).

As social bonds go, it’s not exactly up there with having been in combat together. But there’s a connection there, even if you’re doing your best to mind your own business.

Or mostly doing your best.

“Have you seen the color they are painting the house across the street? I can’t even.”

The list goes on.

Living in town affords one the chance to look outside and note that a neighbor with a new snow-blower fired it up in his driveway 30 seconds after the flakes began to fall.

Living in town gives you the chance to stand by your picture window and speculate about whether another seemingly fit neighbor with a small yard really needs a top-of-the-line riding mower.

It could be argued that such play-by-play doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you, well, normal.

Of course, in the case of actively friendly neighborhood dynamics, keeping an eye on the house next door can involve caring and concern. That’s not all that unusual in Spokane, and it’s a terrific thing.

There are great neighbors out in the country, too. No question. There are people who would run into your burning barn and save your animals.

But there’s also out of sight, out of mind.

In the city, your neighbors are right there in your face, so to speak. For better or worse. Noticing them isn’t really optional.

How does this shape an individual’s perspective? Not much, perhaps. Population density doesn’t have to be destiny when it comes to forming your worldview.

Still, residing among your fellows can be different from living off by yourself.

I’m not saying one is preferable. I am just suggesting they are not the same.

Living in town all but invites you to at least occasionally watch your neighbors. And know they might be watching you.

One of novelist Jane Austen’s characters said it best long ago.

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Of course, the gentleman who said that lived on a country estate. So it’s worth remembering that the passing parade doesn’t stop at the city limits.

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