Community Then and Now

The notion of community is changing, or perhaps community needs to become a notion. It used to be that community came for free. It was something you were born into by virtue of geography or biology, village and family. But now all the kids have moved away from their parents; now the subdivision has replaced the neighborhood. If we want community now — and of course we do — then we have to make it ourselves.

I am wary of whining about how the good old days were better, but there might really be truth in the idea that community is on the decline in the modern world. In his famous essay Bowling Alone (later expanded into a book) sociologist Robert Putnam documents the decline of “togetherness” in modern America, citing various statistics on club and church and civic function attendance. I can’t agree with him for sure, because I’ve only lived in one set of times and places, and I’m suspicious of nostalgia. What I have seen personally is a wide variety of cultures in a various stages of togetherness or apartness, and everywhere the same patterns. The village becomes the city, the old deep allegiance to family becomes unfashionable, and religion ceases to be the central pivot of communal life. It’s no secret that the traditional social institutions have new and lesser meanings.

This is not a moral judgment. I am in no way claiming that things used to be “better.” Anyway I’m too much of an optimist to believe that humanity’s best days are behind us. But community is important. Communities share resources to take care of one another; there must be someone I can carpool with, there must be someone to look after my kids, there must be someone to pick me up from the hospital after my surgery. Communities provide us with new ideas and people, and force us to accept diversity. Communities are a source of friends and lovers. And most miraculously, community can create meaning out of nothing at all.

I am told that the village once provided all these things. I am told that everyone had an extended family network to care for their needs. In some places and for many people, village and family are still the main sources of belonging. But many things have been changing, for centuries now, first in the industrialized countries and increasingly in the developing world. Urbanization has been going for 200 years and shows no signs of stopping; the majority of the people in the world now live in a city. So the village really is in decline, and ease of transport and the lure of far-away gold fragments families on a practical if not personal level. Community is no longer automatic; a support system for daily identity can no longer be assumed.

Which means that if we want it, we have to go get it. This is a new idea in culture. We understand that we have to sort out food and shelter for ourselves; we talk about looking for work. We also see that we need to belong somewhere, yet we don’t talk about looking for community. Or making it, because true community requires a reciprocation that is antithetical to the consumer mentality. Markets are specifically designed to be impersonal.

There is the beginnings of language for this. In San Francisco one hears the phrase “intentional communities.” They are just that: communities created intentionally. A new word for an old idea, as anyone who has ever started a club knows. And the point is that we need something that is no longer a given in the modern world. We need to find people to associate with and learn to care for. We need to build new villages, new families that will flourish in the concrete hustle of a city.

This is, I think why we see subcultures and counter-cultures in cities. These are the modern tribes. This is the way we identify our friends in a wasteland of millions. The lost suburban children knew this, and so we got punks and hippies and hipsters and goths and geeks and gangs and ravers. All of these people are identifiable on the street, by what they wear and how they walk and talk, signals that tell us about their values. But tribes and their semiotics are not truly necessary. Clubs, schools, non-profit organizations, artistic collaborations, a dojo, a circle of party friends, even good old neighborhoods can all be communities. Just don’t expect your urban family to come into existence without you looking for it, making it, deciding that you want it and going out to get it. That is a new idea, a cultural value not quite yet recognized as necessary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.