A tale of two communities:
Our family was invited to a get-together at a neighbor’s house this afternoon. The get-together was a pseudo-block party but held in someone’s yard rather than publicly on a blocked off street. During our early years on the block we were disappointed to have missed a few of the block parties that were held around the Jewish holidays because without children or pets to walk we felt cut off from social life on the block—this gathering gave us a chance to meet some other neighbors. We spent over an hour chatting with some familiar-ish faces and with some of the actual friends we’ve managed to make on the block. As we left, I said to my husband, “That was really great. It makes me not want to move.” He looked surprised by my reaction to what he considered a totally ridiculous way to spend the lazy hours of our Sunday afternoon. “Rachel,” he said, “that [party] would be a reason to move. In the five years we’ve lived here, we have not met half of those people.” And he was right. We know the neighbors on either side of our house and we know the people who live across the street (they all chose not to attend the gathering, I should add), but beyond the friendly wave on the street, no one ever extended a handshake when we moved to the block (save our old neighbors who have since moved away). This was our community and it was pretty disappointing.
After the party, I quick changed into yoga gear and headed to our pseudo-town center (not the real town center but the new urbanism town center) for an outdoor yoga class celebrating the anniversary of a local, fancy-pants active clothing shop. I definitely enjoyed the challenge of practicing yoga outside (which I have done only a few times in my on again/off again yoga practice of 10 years). At the end of the class, after the requisite rest period, the instructor told the crowd, “Take a look around, this is your community.” There it was again. More community.
When Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community,” he focused on the importance of social capital or social networks in our local community. His book highlighted the ways that local communities once rich with organizations engaging local citizens (think bowling leagues) have evolved over time, so that people have far fewer ties to one another. Building community in this technological era is a challenge, and in his subsequent work, Putnam calls for renewed civic engagement. Technology may facilitate this process, but it also makes us lazier about making face-to-face contact with other people (thus limiting the development of social capital).
It is so easy to resist building social capital. It is more comfortable to talk to people you know, or people you perceive to be similar. There was a woman at the pseudo-block party that had lived on our block for 45 years. 45 years. I spent some time talking with her and I was really glad that I did. [Sidenote: my mother-in-law would have been proud because she always hated how my husband’s grandmother was ignored at social engagements.] This woman was a young 75, and I really enjoyed hearing about her family life. I remember reading Putnam’s book and feeling horrified by the state of local communities. And here I was, living the same reality.
Thinking I will have to do some more smiling across the lawn over this autumn, because the block is buckling down for the winter ahead which means I probably won’t see these people until next spring.