neighborhoods, pop-up urbanism, public spaces, social capital
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what turkeys can tell us (about social capital)

I’ve been wanting to write for a long time about the turkeys in my neighborhood.

Turkeys? In Cambridge, you say?


Here they are, in the front yard of a neighboring apartment building, the first morning I saw them.  In the late morning, on my way to a meeting, about a week before Thanksgiving.

Yes, a week before Thanksgiving.

Temporal coincidences aside, the first time I noticed them, I snapped this photo, sent it to my husband (who was at work) via iPhone, and continued along my way, chuckling.  I noticed some hours later that the Cambridge Chronicle had shared a tweet with its followers about a resident who had also seen turkeys.  I wasn’t crazy, I now knew, wasn’t fostering some kind of weird pre-holiday illusion about festive charismatic fauna in my neighborhood. I tweeted back.

So the next morning, when I saw a couple of people gathered around the front yard of a different neighbor’s house, I knew it had to be the turkeys.  They were talking animatedly to each other, curious about something.

“Turkeys?!” I asked.

“Yes!” they responded.

We watched the birds peck their way through the side yard until they were out of sight.  The woman introduced herself to me.  “Do you live in the neighborhood?” she asked.  “Yes, around the corner.” “I live in this house here [indicating the house next door].” “Oh! I always admire your paint job.”  “Thank you.  Nice to meet you!”

In the following days, every time I saw the turkeys, I would talk with someone around me.  One person asked if I thought someone was keeping them, for Thanksgiving dinner (I thought not.)  Others just shared amused glances.  When I ran into a friend who lives nearby, at our local coffee shop, I asked her about the turkeys, and learned that she has been seeing them around for some months.

After Thanksgiving, I curiously did not see the turkeys again for some weeks.  My husband and I joked that they really had been seasonal amusements, and that we were sure to find reindeer in our backyard sometime soon.  We did not.  But, one weekend afternoon, walking down the street, we came upon the turkeys again.  One of our neighbors was feeding them!  We stopped to talk to her.  She had called the humane society, she explained, to make sure she was feeding them something appropriate.  She had named them, Maggie and something else I can’t remember.  They perch on her front porch in the evenings, she said; they must have a nest somewhere nearby.  Turkeys sleep in trees, she explained.  We had no idea.  Others stopped to gawk, or to comment.  We said goodbye, and nice to meet you.

So why am I telling you this mostly ridiculous story about wayward urban animal life?

Oh, you guessed?

Over the course of these months, I began to realize that the turkeys were the only time I stopped to talk to other people on the street around me.  They’re unusual, surprising, and that naturally causes people to stop for a moment; it shakes up their routine or expectations just enough that they notice new things or feel open enough to talk to strangers.

I realized this is why I care about entropy.  I’ve written here and here about the importance of elasticity for economies, ecologies, political empowerment.  But at the heart of anything with a temporal component is its ability to surprise.  And, in turn, to catalyze something new in the people who encounter it.  In some ways this is an aesthetic claim — there is a particular cultural appeal of the visual and sensory appeal of the ephemeral.  But it goes deeper than that.  When established landscapes of behavior and environment are destabilized, people are provoked towards thought, towards reaction, or at least towards coming out of their shells.  Think of the millions of stories that feature a “stranger coming into town” and catalyzing all kinds of latent social transformations simply because the presence of a newcomer allows people to think beyond their expectations.  In a small way, my neighborhood’s turkeys are a bit like this.  We see something we don’t expect, we must remark and confer with someone around us.  In a neighborhood like mine, where everyone keeps to themselves but is generally affable if waved to, an opportunity to make a personal connection must be presented.  Imagine if we had more turkey-like moments in my neighborhood, maybe I’d speak with these neighbors again.

A side note: in retrospect, I find it very instructive that I first shared my turkey sighting over twitter, and via email to my husband.  These are the social networks with which I am more comfortable.  Repeat viewings, and the openness of other strangers to talk, coaxed me into my openness in the “real world.”  Perhaps my experience can point to more systematic implementations of this kind of incremental “surprise” in the future.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Adventures in neighborhood podcasting « Diana Lempel

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