Friday, December 2, 2005

Community

What makes a community? What keeps it together? What do the members have in common?

In the U.S., old towns and neighborhoods in cities were often settled by immigrants of the same country and/or ethnicity. My hometown of Hamburg, New York was primarily German and Polish. In Chicago, of course, there are Chinatown and Greektown, and entire neighborhoods, like towns, of Indians, Mexicans, Asians, etc. In these cases, the residents for the most part have a common language, history, and culture, and many have the same goals—American citizenship and prosperity.

There are also company towns where nearly everyone works for the same employer. When I was involved in a consulting project for Gateway Computer, nearly everyone I talked to in town either worked at Gateway, had a family member who did, or had a business patronized by Gateway employees. The connections here are somewhat more tenuous; while the success of nearly individual depends on the success of the company, and while there area always a lot of family relationships in any town of limited size and growth, the people themselves may not have that much else in common. The residents might include everyone from cleaning staff and security guards to engineers and executives, with different social values, economic standings, and religious beliefs. The community is built based on the company, not on the people.

Now, many have flocked to suburban and master-planned communities, where the attractions are people of the preferred ethnicity (more important than most people will admit), large houses that are increasing in value, good school and services like police and fire, plus attractions like dining and shopping. There may be some common desires and even values, but this type of community may consist of people who have lived in it their entire lives, people who have moved from the city, people who have moved from other suburbs, and even people who have moved from other parts of the country. They may share a national culture, but the local cultures from which they came may be very different. Maybe the town has always rolled up the sidewalks early in the evening, while new arrivals from urban areas are used to lots of excitement and noise late at night. In one case I know of, the local culture is largely centered on hunting and fishing, and new residents from out of state were surprised to see their neighbors in their backyards cleaning their guns and other equipment.

It seems to me that the concept of community is a natural one, while the construct is often not. People need to live in communities to share in services and goods, to form social connections, and provide one another with the safety (and sometimes risk) of numbers. That said, anyone with the means and the desire can live in a community, but no one needs to participate in it. If most of us don't participate in the community, or know our neighbors, is it a community, or is it just a conglomeration of dwellings?

When the U.S. was a fledgling nation, was there a greater sense of community? At a time when I may have lived miles from my nearest neighbor, with only the horse for distance transportation, would I have relied on him more, to help build my house and barn, plant and harvest my crops, cope with weather and natural disasters like droughts and tornadoes, and fend off enemies? I would have needed my neighbor, and he would have needed me.

Do I need my neighbor, whose house is within feet of mine, in the same way today? I might ask him to watch my house or my pets, plants, and mailbox while I'm away. His children might play with mine, but if they go to different schools they might be more likely to spend their time with their school friends. The only time we might have contact is at community association meetings, where our only exchange might be for one of us to complain about the condition of the other's lawn. There's not much sense of belonging to a greater whole or of real service to it, mainly of asserting one's rights and privileges.

The Wall Street Journal ran a feature about Dallas and the city's attempt to revitalize its business downtown. The story mentioned a national trend of people buying houses and condos downtown in large cities. Certainly this is true in Chicago, where downtown housing is booming (at boom prices). I wonder if some of the people making this move are seeking a sense of community, where they have a doorman or concierge who knows them by name. I wonder if they are people who want to be able to walk to the grocery and drugstore and encounter neighbors on the sidewalk rather than breeze by them in self-contained, climate-controlled SUVs. Are they pioneers of a sort—people willing to give up the known for the unknown and unfamiliar?

It's an interesting experiment, and it's natural to wonder how long it will last. Will these pioneers develop true urban communities, where the people are as important as the trappings? The kind of community Colette writes about in the Claudine novels, where people of disparate backgrounds but similar socioeconomic status pay visits and gather for one another's "at home days"? What will people find to be the downside—the lack of personal, open, and natural space? Isolation from friends who have not made the move? Lack of neighborhood recreational opportunities for children? Lack of convenient schools? Lack of malls and familiar stores?

Is this a reaction to "cocooning," when we rented movies and ordered food in, staying home and avoiding our community?

Is it a fad or a trend?

Are we waking up to the sense of community that we may have lost with the advent of the car and suburbia?

For how long?

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