Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Community

I've been reading Peter Lovenheim's In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, and actually, I assigned it for the summer class I'm teaching. As a book, I think it tends to be redundant, but if I think of it as a very long essay that needs editing, then I think it brings up some excellent points.

At any rate, I want to talk about its theme in relation to simplicity.

The premise of the book is that following a murder-suicide on his street, Lovenheim sets out to meet his neighbors and really find out what's going on with the people he's geographically closest to. He does this by basically spending at least an entire day with them--including spending the night. I thought it was a cool basis for a social experiment, and so far, it's generated some decent discussion in my class.

I just finished reading it today, and at the end of the book, Lovenheim recounts a conversation he had with a neighbor who asked him how he had met one of his other neighbors. As part of the response he writes, "I met Patti because at some point it seemed both absurd and wasteful to be living unconnected to the people all around me."

I love that he treats people/relationships as resources. Why leave the neighborhood to make friends when you could have friends right here who would probably be more useful to you in a time of need? This is not the only time in the book he speaks of efficiency in examining community, and I love that very non-hippie way of looking at community. In my class, multiple students and I have used the word "nice" as in, "It would be nice to know my neighbors, but it isn't necessary to my survival." True. But if you want to persuade someone who doesn't want to know his/her neighbors, well, "nice" can't be quantified.

What can be quantified, however, is the time it takes your closest friend to come to you when you need help. Twenty minutes? If it's an emergency, you can call 911, but what if you're not sure it's going to be an emergency? What if you hear a noise and you just don't want to be alone while you investigate? This has happened to me twice, and I can tell you that having a neighbor close by that I trusted was a much less embarrassing and emotional experience.

What can also be quantified is the time and money spent forging friendships and communities outside the neighborhood. Think about the cost of entertainment, gym memberships, fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, etc. What the author (and I) concludes time and time again is that it's just plain easier and simpler to create community based on proximity. He also mentions the idea of social capital, which I'll admit I don't know much about, but I have a feeling I'll know more about it at the end of this class.

Now, I might agree with all of this, but while I talk a good game, the truth is that I don't know my own neighbors. Since I live in military housing, I do know several people who live in the neighborhood, so I'm not a complete hypocrite, but I don't know anyone on my street beyond the occasional "hi" or silent wave. Ideally, shouldn't the people I'm closest to be the people I'm closest to?

Of course, in my defense, my two next door neighbors won't be here anymore in a matter of a couple weeks. That isn't my fault.

Still, I wanted to post this because I think community that is based on proximity is important. Yes, it's "nice," and it might even be the morally correct thing to do, but beyond those benefits, it keeps things simple. It helps us use the resources that are literally right in front of us.

If you're interested in meeting your neighbors, the book mentions two websites designed to help neighbors connect (yes, there's some big, fat irony with this): (mostly for apartment buildings in big cities)