Editor’s note: This piece, by a well-known professor in the Netherlands, originally appeared in the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw (January 2, 2010). The Front Porch Republic article that Kennedy references is also soon to appear in the well-known Polish conservative magazine Fronda.

Amersfoort, The Netherlands. In the last few weeks, when our streets and sidewalks were dusted with snow, I sprang up with snow shovel in hand, and went outside to clear the sidewalk. I was ready to go; for many years, the snow shovel that I had imported from Michigan had sat unemployed in the shed. And since the little parcel of pavement before my house is nothing compared to the sixty-five foot driveway that I had to keep tidy in Michigan, I also took care of the next door neighbors’ sidewalks.

But I quickly realized that my neighborhood dealt with snow on the sidewalks differently than the inhabitants of Michigan, where nearly 100 inches of snow fall per year. Michiganians are required to free their sidewalks of snow and ice the day that the snow falls. It turns out that, here in Amersfoort, I am one of the few who took the effort to clear the sidewalk. Within a few days, the sidewalks of my neighborhood turned into a slippery sheet of ice, rendering them impassable.

I understand that there could be all kinds of reasons why the Dutch did not line up immediately with shovels in hand. First of all because many of them probably do not have snow shovels, and it takes some time and effort to clean snow from a sidewalk with a broom. Perhaps they, like my wife and children, first wanted to go sledding on the white sidewalks. Maybe they were so impressed with the unspoiled beauty of the snow, in an age when people are so worried about global warming, that they wanted to cherish it. Perhaps they assumed that the snow would quickly melt, or that city hall would do it. Or was it simply that in the last few decades so little snow has fallen here that the younger generation has never learned to keep sidewalks clear?

I tend to think that slippery sidewalks are a sign of a broader pattern, in which people are less prepared to take responsibility for the inconvenience of ‘gray areas’, such as sidewalks. Is the sidewalk an extension of my property or does it belong to the municipality? Whose responsibility is it to keep it clean? In the more modest neighborhoods in my area, I noted that the streets and sidewalks were often swept, I suspect by the very same people who sweep them in summer and fall (something I admittedly seldom do). But overall, both the citizens and my municipality of Amersfoort, failed massively. The municipality did not clean the sidewalks, the pedestrian walkway in the shopping district was an ice-skating rink, and not one single plow drove down our street. But the fault also lay with the citizens of Amersvoort, who apparently are not aware that passersby could fall on their sidewalks, or could be forced by their negligence to share the streets with bicyclists and cars.

Recently, in the online magazine Front Porch Republic, Jonathan David Price related his experiences in Amsterdam. He waited for a streetcar to arrive at its stop along with other passengers. The streetcar stood motionless just a few feet away, because a broken umbrella lay on the rails. No one felt responsible to pick the umbrella up: neither the tram driver nor the passengers nor the onlookers. Finally, Price stepped off the tram stop to remove the umbrella from the rails.

Who takes responsibility in these gray areas? Many Dutch do (more than) their bit to keep semi-public spaces clean. But most do not. And the extent that citizens are willing to take responsibility in these gray zones is an indicator of the health of their society.  It is a rough indication how much people are willing to commit themselves to each other and to society. “I’m not doing it, because it’s not my responsibility,” is not a good attitude to start a new year.

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution: to keep my sidewalk tidy. That means getting to work straight away, as my street is filled with the empty firework canisters from the Dutch New Year’s celebration.

——

James Kennedy is Professor of the history of the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam.

This piece was translated into English by Jonathan David Price.

12 COMMENTS

  1. In a world where mutual obligation seems increasingly forgotten it is hard to understand its decline. It would not I think be due to a greater dissemination of some gene for sociopathy but rather I believe the adoption of norms in opposition to mutual obligation and focused on selfish individualism. The adoption of money that allowed wealth to be accumulated would clearly play a large role in facilitating this selfish individualism. Now we have the current situation where capitalism itself is deliberately undermined by the blind greed of bankers who using the vast liquid wealth at their disposal knowingly use the manufacture of counterfeit financial instruments, short selling, bribing of politicians with campaign funding, intense lobbying of government and the continuous interchange of personnel between government, the Federal Reserve and the banks to achieve their ends. Clearly continuing to allow the banks to operate in such a way is corroding trust within society and mutual obligation relies on trust. If I make the effort to help you then in part I do so hoping that should I need it you in turn will help me. I am reminded of the old American revolutionary Gadsden flag depicting a rattlesnake and the wording “Don’t Tread on Me.” which has as its double meaning not only that we will strike back if trodden on but that of mutual obligation. The wording is apt for the slippery sidewalks of the Netherlands as well as those of other so-called developed countries.

  2. As best I can tell, shoveling is a fairly recent phenomenon. My house (circa 1900) was built like almost all the houses in my neighborhood, 5′ off the ground. Thus it could accommodate a once in a lifetime winter and still allow you to get out the front door. In Siberia Bound, the author notes that snow wasn’t shoveled and people simply made well worn paths in the snow. This was in a large city, Novosibirsk. My understanding locally is that snow would pile up on Main Street until it got sufficiently deep, and then it was shoveled onto sleighs and carried away.

  3. Thank you, James.

    When I saw your name and teaching affiliation, I wondered if you were the James Kennedy of Orange City. Thanks to your Wikipedia entry, I see that you are. Your father, E.W. “Bill” Kennedy, was my favorite religion professor at Northwestern College, one of two enclaves of the Dutch in northwestern Iowa. My nephew is currently attending the other Dutch school: Dordt College. Congratulations on your position in Amsterdam.

  4. This may be an example of the failure of the principle that good fences make good neighbors.

    Do Michiganders clear their sidewalks because of government regulation requiring them to do so, or because of a sense of ownership over the sidewalk?

  5. In my little corner of the Great Lakes State, we have sidewalk plows that come through in the middle of the night and clear the walkways. More or less. I have four complaints about these plows. First, they pack down the snow on the sidewalks, making them even harder to clear. Second, they are quite noisy and typically wake me up around 2AM. Third, they form two huge snow berms on my driveway, which I have to clear out. Fourth, they rarely stay on the sidewalk, and end up tearing up my grass. I hate those things, and hate that my taxes go toward funding them. I’d prefer to exercise my sense of ownership.

  6. We shovel the sidewalks here in Ontario and I think we like to believe that we’d do it even without the laws and fines. Actually, our street has a guy with a truly awesome snow-blower who does everyone’s sidewalk when there’s heavy snow. I think it’s a great way for him to meet people.

    It’s not all idyllic- a few years ago, after I shoveled the sidewalk, I left the shovels on our front porch, and someone stole them!

  7. Thanks Jim. When I lived in Iowa, I have no idea if we had a law or not, but we cleared our sidewalks immediately just because it seemed like the right thing to do. But in my former home in the south suburbs of Chicago, we didn’t have to worry about shoveling the sidewalks, since we didn’t have them.

  8. In my North Dakota neighborhood, the people who are otherwise known as nice also clear the snow from their portion of the sidewalk, and the people who are otherwise not nice (e.g. the ones with the vicious, snarling dog in a chain-link cage near the daycare, or the owner of the house with the for-sale sign and a front yard that is a dog toilet) do not clear the snow. It’s about as simple as that.

  9. I have a walk going to my backyard. I have a walk going to my back door from a side street. I own both and shovel neither. I shovel my front walk and my side street walk because it is required by law. My front steps I shovel because it makes my life easier. Back in the good old days, people wore these things called boots to get around. I still wear them to get around. They handle well trod snow as well as they handle clean sidewalk. Sneakers and loafers do not handle snow well.

  10. Me thinks this has a lot to do with snowfall patterns along courtesy and lawsuits. In NJ back in the day, once the stuff starts falling it usually kept coming every five days or so, Nj is on a weather meridian transitioning between rainfall, sleet and snow, keeping pavement clear is a way of avoiding treacherous conditions, typically it would rain then snow then rain and freeze all in one night, and you could find yourself attempting to walk up an incline coated in thick ice with rain pouring down while being buffeted by winds. Not preventing those conditions will put stress on your homeowner’s policy. But of course there was always some ass who wouldn’t bother.

    In other places though the stuff doesn’t usually stick around and folks don’t bother.

    But the umbrella thing is something different, people are reluctant to perform even obviously rational acts of community assistance so as to avoid being seen as a sucker in today’s rat race society.

  11. I am pretty late to this discussion, but it brings up an interesting point that, it seems to me, to be extremely important for the Front Porch Republic. Mr. Stegall’s question sort of hints at it, and I often think that the questions are more interesting and important than answers, but in this case I am not so sure. In most cities and towns in the United States, if there are sidewalks, there is an obligation upon the person who owns the property to clean off the portion of the sidewalk that benefits their front yard. (I assume that in the Front Porch Republic, people would use the sidewalks to get to the Front Porches, no?) When I lived in a row home in Philadelphia, during major snowstorms I would often go to shovel a few of my elderly neighbor’s sidewalks and paths that led to their homes. My thought process was that they either would not be able to shovel it themselves, or if they attempted to do so, they could seriously injure themselves. It was the best feeling in the world as well when the neighbors thanked me for doing this small favor.

    However, now being trained in the dark arts of the law, I realize that it may not have been such a good idea to shovel their sidewalks at all. If I shoveled their sidewalks improperly and one of my elderly neighbors were to fall, or if someone else should fall while walking on their sidewalk, I could be subject to a lawsuit for my negligence, especially if I said to my neighbor “Its all shoveled, now you can come and go as you please.” Similarly, if I accepted a cup of hot coccoa, or a new shovel from my neighbors, as a kind gesture for my efforts, in a court of law this may be argued to be payment, and subject me to further liability.

    These examples are not put forth to say that I would not shovel my neighbor’s sidewalk, because I certainly still would. However, much of the Front Porch Republic’s project (and Wendell Berry’s oft mentioned requirement of “neighborliness”) may rest on whether others in our increasingly litigious society would do the same, despite the possible bad outcomes. That is, to what extent has Leviathan succeeded in building a direct relationship with each person, and to what extent can the trust necessary for the Republic to function rise above Leviathan’s attempt to break the links between us?

  12. I live in Wisconsin, where snow used to stick around all winter, and still does for days or weeks at a time, depending on how our warmer climate plays out in any given year. Property owners are required to shovel sidewalks, but I live in a rented apartment, so the manager takes care of it. Once last year, when I knew the manager was out, I noticed an inch of heavy slush, which would certainly turn to ice overnight, got a shovel, and removed it. This was for my own safety, and incidentally benefited my neighbors. I could, I suppose, have asked for a rent reduction, but that would have been petty.

    This year, the side of the street I park on was full of snow, because cars are parked there when the plows come by, so the parking spaces never get plowed. It can be a slippery mess all winter. One other resident of my building, and I, without knowing each other or planning in advance, went out and shoveled the five closest spaces by hand. I later did that for a space down the block, that I needed, because it was the closest space available. Again, this benefited me first, but my neighbors as well, and perhaps more so. The other guy asked, “If four people would do this on every block, you know how much tax money would be saved?” Probably none, since it is work the city is NOT already doing. But, it would make life a little easier for all.

    What’s missing is a sense of “just do it,” in the civic sense that we all live here.

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