My wife shared a book from 1997 with me this week, and the following passage jumped out at me. It’s from Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America by Lisbeth B. Schorr.
Americans who agree on nothing else, writes William Raspberry, agree that we used to live in wonderful neighborhoods and communities. The neighborhoods that we who are middle-aged and older remember nostalgically may have been poor, seedy, segregated, and populated by the rejected and exploited, but they were our communities and we miss them.
Without a sense of community, says John Gardner, “people lose the conviction they can improve the quality of their lives through their own efforts.”
My friend and colleague Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, reminisces about growing up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in her wonderful books, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours:
“I went everywhere with my parents and was under the watchful eye of members of the congregation and community who were my extended family. They kept me when my parents went out of town, they reported on me and chided me when I strayed from the straight and narrow of community expectations, and they basked in and supported my achievements when I did well. Doing well, they made clear, meant high academic achievement, playing piano in Sunday school, participating in other church activities, being helpful, displaying good manners, and reading.”
Gil Walker’s memories of his childhood in Gary, Indiana, also feature networks of adults engaged with children, promoting community values.
“I can remember, when I was coming up, walking home from school with my report card in my hand. Before I got home, five or six people wanted to see it. If it was a good report card, I got hugs, I got kisses… If it was a bad report card, everyone of those individuals said, ‘Gil Walker, you know you could do better… ‘”
Gil Walker now runs a midnight basketball program for young people who live in Chicago public housing as his way of trying to replace the lost networks he remembers.
So what happened to those communities?
They have been rapidly eroding all over the industrialized world. Some combination of the following have interacted to weaken community bonds everywhere:
Fear of crime, violence, and disorder deters people from gathering informally in public spaces. Public parks and playgrounds seem more threatening than welcoming. Older people especially, traditionally the backbone of neighborhoods, are afraid to venture out of their homes. In many neighborhoods, vigilant mothers keep their children – even teenagers – at home to keep them safe.
Rapid advances in transportation and communication, together with the requirements of the post-industrial economy and the attraction of the suburbs and mild climates, have required and allowed vast number of people to move far from their neighborhoods and families of origin. Mobility has become easy and frequent – for all but the poor and elderly and those marooned by racial prejudice.
The women who used to organize the PTA, volunteer in hospitals, and operate as front-porch disciplinarians and supervisors of the street scene are elsewhere. Some left with the opening of professional and workplace opportunities from which they had been excluded. Many more entered the labor market out of economic necessity.
With the increase of single-parent families, many parents (usually mothers) must be both nurturer and breadwinner, leaving little time for community relationships.
Technology has made it unnecessary to leave home and mingle with others to see movies and plays and listen to music. We watch sports on television rather than play them with our children, friends, and neighbors, and we listen to intimate matters being discussed by Oprah’s guests rather than our own.
The scale of most institutions that touch our lives makes it harder to make connections. The corner grocery has been replaced by the supermarket, neighborhood stores by regional Wal-Marts, and even six-year-olds have to cope with elementary schools of two thousand children. Political institutions have become so large and so complex that most people have no chance to work together to solve small-scale problems, and feel they have no control over how their taxes are spent or how their children are taught.
For all these reasons and more, Americans feel less anchored, more adrift. Political philosopher Michael Sandel believes that the erosion of community lies at the heart of our contemporary discontent.
Robert F. Kennedy was one of the first American politicians to recognize that the loss of community was hurting us, individually and collectively. Not long before he was killed, he called attention to the destruction of “the thousand invisible strands of common experience and purpose, affection, and respect, which tie men to their fellows.” He believed that the world beyond the neighborhood has become “impersonal and abstract…beyond the reach of individual control or even understanding.” In his 1968 presidential campaign, he called for the restoration of community as “a place where people can see and know each other, where children can play and adults work together and join in the pleasures and responsibilities of the place where they live.”