In the 1980s, when I was living in Durham, North Carolina, I attended a church in a neighborhood undergoing transition. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church had been built to serve Hope Valley, an upper-class neighborhood, an early 20th-century enclave strategically positioned on the other side of the Durham County line, allowing residents to avoid racial tensions in town. By the late 1980s, however, change was afoot in Durham County. Huge planned developments sprang up, complete with schools, private pools, and associations. The new communities bore old-fashioned words like “chapel,” “farm,” or “woods” in their names, to give them an air of tradition. The old Hope Valley neighbors, who could be an exclusive lot, had a hard time with these pop-up communities, seeing the new people as interlopers and the new developments as intrusions on the landscape. At the church, a tribal war broke out between those who sought to maintain the old neighborhood and the newcomers who had begun to attend the church. In the short term, the old-timers won. It was, in a word, unpleasant.
An odd thing, however, has happened since. The way of life that the older church members were trying to maintain, that of the historic houses and interrelated families, has pretty much vanished. They may have won the skirmish at the church, but the world was changing around them. Although old Hope Valley remains as a protected historic district, some of it was surrendered to infill and tear down, and the newer surrounding neighborhoods, with their modern amenities, are now home to many thousands more people than the original neighborhood could have ever housed. The new tribe eventually took over. Thirty years ago, I thought that the conflict at St. Stephen’s church was about theology. In hindsight, it is apparent that it was a conflict about sociology: the meaning and future of the American neighborhood.