Thursday, March 01, 2007

If a Man Dies in the City, Does Anyone Make a Sound?

The following news item appeared two weeks ago in Newsday:

Southampton police responding to burst water pipes in a Hampton Bays home found the mummified body of the owner -- dead for more than a year -- sitting in a chair in front of a television, officials said Friday.The television was still on.

Vincenzo Riccardi, 70, appeared to have died of natural causes in his home on Wakeman Road, said Dr. Stuart Dawson, Suffolk deputy chief medical examiner.The medical examiner's office considered his body mummified because the lack of humidity in his home preserved his features, morgue assistant Jeff Bacchus said."You could see his face. He still had hair on his head," Bacchus said. "I've been on the job 35 years, and I've never seen anyone dead that long."Police and county sources said Riccardi, whose body was found Thursday, had not been heard from since December 2005. The medical examiners said they were baffled as to why the electricity would be on in the home all that time."He was in his house, sitting in his chair, as if watching television, and the television was, in fact, still on," Dawson said. Riccardi lived alone, his wife having died years ago, Dawson said.
"He hasn't been heard from in over a year. That's the part that baffles me," he said. "Nobody sounded the alarm." Neighbors said they had thought Ricardo was in a hospital or nursing home."We never thought to check on him," said neighbor Diane Devon.

This story underlines a 21st century phenomena: the death of communal spirit.

First came the rise of the urban community. As Ferdinand Tonnies pointed out over 100 years ago, big cities develop because it is in the economic and political interests of those who live there. They are instrumental societies based on personal interests. By contrast, in small towns the community is an end in itself. That’s why you can live in a city (or a suburb) and have no idea who your neighbors are.

Tonnies’ analysis reminds me of a line from the movie Crocodile Dundee. The main character, a crocodile wrestler from the outback in Australia, has never been to a big city. Upon arriving to New York, he is informed that seven million people live there. Amazed by the information, Dundee remarks:

“That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.”

Of course New York is a lot different than Crocodile Dundee imagines. New York is not a community; it’s just a group of people who shop at the same stores.

Contemporary urban communities are eerily similar to Ezekiel’s description of the people of Sodom: wealthy, urban, and completely unwelcoming.

Now, on top of the urban un-community, we have a new phenomenon to make us even more self absorbed: cocooning. Now a marketing buzzword, cocooning is:

the name given to trend that sees individuals socializing less and retreating into their home more. Individuals tend to stay away from society and lack in social confidence leading to 'cocooning'.

So, we build bigger cocoons, and have smaller communities. I’m afraid the 21st century will see more TV watching mummies like Mr. Riccardi, unknown, unnoticed and unloved. And in the process we will experience the rise of a kinder, gentler Sodom, a world where anonymous neighbors cannot see beyond their own cocoons.

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