Open-and-Shut Case

How the garage killed America.

If video killed the radio star, then the garage is killing America. As we begin bubbling forth from winter dens like bumble bees from the ground, I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” His persona quips, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offence (sic).”

Illustration by Jon KrauseC.G. Johnson invented the upward-lifting garage door—the “up and over”—in 1921. Five years later, he introduced the electric door opener. His Overhead Door Corporation still thrives. Industry experts say that once-freestanding garages now consume 30 percent of new home facades. Says a lot about society, doesn’t it?

The word garage itself comes from the French garer—meaning to shelter or protect. But do garages shelter cars or their owners? After all, we know how friendly the French are.

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This often-unknowing self-imprisonment was never more obvious to me than when I lived in a townhouse development. Close houses don’t guarantee friendly neighbors. No, not with garages that became hubs for hermit crabs and quick shells for box turtles. Press that garage-door button and leave the world—and your neighbors—behind.

Today, in my backroads rural existence, I have a three-car, old-style carriage house. The automatic garage openers broke a decade ago. I’ve never fixed them. Instead, I’ve accumulated so much stuff from garage sales—the invention’s lone saving grace, along with providing proving ground for garage bands—that my vehicles never see the inside of them.

One recent Internet post reflected on the benefits of a broken garage door opener. The writer suggested it gave him time to look at his growing grass, talk to his neighbors and play with their dog. “It makes me wonder what else I’m missing because of convenience technologies,” he said.

On the Main Line, there’s a direct though unofficial correlation between the closest-knit neighborhoods and the lack of garages. In Garrett Hill last year, a resident coalition spearheaded 80-plus community meetings and forced change in the drafting and development of its master plan and overlay district. And in West Chester, the East End Neighborhood Association has led a re-unified reversal of rampant regression in the borough’s largest and poorest African-American area.

Today, we have high-tech social networkers (hardly me). There’s Facebook, MySpace and texting. None of this fits my notion of social networking. Whatever happened to picking up, dialing—and answering—the telephone? Is that so passé? Real social networking began long before computing.

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With pride, I still harken back to my boyhood King of Prussia neighborhood. I was always going door-to-door, whether to collect money for Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon and UNICEF, or to shovel snow. I even turned into an early entrepreneur and sold Philly soft pretzels when you could buy three for $1.

Last summer, my 8-year-old godson Kyle opened an end-of-the-driveway lemonade stand. He gets it: Meet the people in the development and make some friends (and some cash). Network with the neighbors—face to face.

J.F. Pirro is Main Line Today’s senior writer—and a big fan of garage sales.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!