On Community, Part IV

This is the fourth and final post in a series about community and social cohesion in the United States. In the preceding entries (I, II, III) I put forth the thesis that American culture lacks a strong sense of community, and outlined some of the reasons I believe are responsible for this coming to be. In this post, I will propose some ideas to counteract the problem, although my ideas do not yet constitute a comprehensive solution. I am at an early enough stage in my thinking to only begin to realize the scope of this problem, let alone devise serious and credible solutions. What follows are shots in the dark; the first steps in what is bound to be a long journey.

I will begin with recommendations concerning the large-scale, actions that require concerted effort and political will. I will then follow this with actions that we as individuals can take, to create and nurture a strong community around ourselves.

Societal Actions

The City: Previously I argued that one of the main driving forces behind the disintegration of community was suburbanization. This raises the question of whether one should look to the small town or to the big city when thinking about community. My feeling on this is that, with respect to the small town, the genie is out of the bottle. We, as Americans and as humans, are an increasingly urban species. While small towns may provide a quick and immediate fix, in the sense that the communities that exist there are stronger than those of the city or certainly the suburb, they are not a sustainable long-term solution. Small towns lack the rich culture, produced by high population density, and the economies of scale that enable modern technological industries. Cities on the other hand have many of the advantages of the small town while avoiding the pitfalls of the suburbs. Like small towns, cities are geographically small, making them highly walkable and unfriendly to cars. This results in more unintended social interactions, a key ingredient for cultivating strong communities. Cities, also like small towns, tend to mix commercial and residential zoning, resulting in a large number of small and locally owned shops and venues that serve as social anchors for the community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cities, particularly large cities, address one of the major problems wrought by industrialization: the decoupling of the workplace from geography. Because of their large and diverse economies, cities are able to support a much broader range of professional occupations, making them a practical place to live out a significant fraction of one’s life. The lack of geographic stability, as I argued in part II, leads to weaker communities.

My conclusion from all of the above is that our hope for the future must lie in the city. Unfortunately, American cities are far from perfect. Their biggest problem is their lack of intimacy, the absence of a conduit that enables broad yet genuine social interaction like the type that occurs in small towns. This, I believe, is caused in no small part by the lack of public spaces and public squares. American cities, even our greatest one, pale in this regard when compared to small cities abroad. The comparison is particularly galling when made with European cities. In places large and small, public squares punctuate the life of Europe. They are the equivalent of citywide water coolers, where people of all ages and backgrounds come to mingle and socialize. And they range in size, grandeur, and intimacy to fit the occasion. The largest and grandest squares are largely monumental, a showcase of the country’s past or present achievements. These are the most similar to their American counterparts, and are typically frequented by tourists and pickpockets. But it is the smaller squares, the ones serving a neighborhood, or even a handful of houses, that are the most remarkable. They function as the community’s gathering place, serving a total local population of hundreds to thousands. They are places where families bring their television sets to watch soccer matches together. They are where students gather to sit on cobbled stones and do homework together. They are not closed off, owned by universities or shopping malls or restaurants. They are safe and welcoming, frequented by the very young and the very old, at all times of the day and even the night. They share little with the edgy, and sometimes sketchy, places that pass off as public squares in America. They are not meant to show off, but to include, to support, and to nurture. And they are almost entirely lacking in every American city.

This I believe is a shortcoming that the American city ought to rectify. The closest American counterpart to a functioning European square that I know of is Dolores Park in San Francisco. Yet it too is too large and too showy, without the intimacy and smallness of European squares.

Beyond public squares, public spaces more generally, especially venues for long and leisurely walks, seem to be generally absent from American cities. I am not referring to wooded parks or hiking trails, not Golden Gate or Central Park, but Hyde Park or La Rambla. Social places, as opposed to places for hiding from people.

Assimilate and Be Assimilated: Multiculturalism is another force that I previously identified as contributing to the lack of social cohesion in the United States. In this case too, I think that the genie is out of the bottle, and any effort that aims to homogenize the US culturally is misguided and will ultimately fail. However, there are things that we can do to ease the absorption of foreign cultures and customs, insure their success, and ultimately benefit from them. First, we should maintain our effectiveness at assimilating immigrant populations. In this regard the United Stated has arguably been more successful than Europe. By and large, immigrants to the US learn English, acquire jobs, and within a generation or two become wholly integrated into the larger cultural fabric. Ethnic ghettos, while not non-existent, are far less prevalent in the US, with most immigrants settling in a geographically dispersed fashion that in the long run insures their full integration. This has been the key to America’s continued ability to absorb one generation of immigrants after another, and it is critical that we preserve this ability. To do so means maintaining our expectation of immigrants to culturally assimilate and to be productive members of society. The need to work insures that immigrants are quickly exposed to mainstream American culture. Similarly, the requirement of learning the basics of American history before naturalization insures that the nation’s founding ideals are at least of passing familiarity to its new citizens. Finally, an expectation for learning English should be maintained. Given that Spanish is spoken by over 21% of Americans, in the long run the US may become a bilingual country. As I argued in part III, this in itself is not a problem, so long as both English and Spanish become universally spoken throughout the US, a scenario that is realizable within a few generations.

Multiculturalism can also work in the opposite direction. In addition to assimilating new cultures, we should open ourselves to be assimilated by the progressive ideas and customs that new immigrants bring. Individuals from countries with strong social fabrics can infuse the US with their own conception of community. What makes the cultural experiment that is America so exciting is the fact that it is a melting pot, a place where contrasting views and customs can be examined, combined, accepted and rejected based on their merit and their compatibility with other customs and beliefs. Instead of settling for the lowest common denominator, for a culture that is the intersection of all others, we should instead strive for a synthesis, for a culture that is the union of what is best about all the cultures in the world. To do this will imply dropping the veneer of political correctness, and allowing for the free expression of each person’s expectation of what constitutes a community. My own life has been a microcosm of this synthesis. I was raised in a pre-industrialized, culturally homogeneous, urban environment, and I often have the strange feeling that my upbringing provided me with a window into the past, in a way that is not entirely negative or regressive. Instead, this past recalls a time when our social bonds were stronger, and has beckoned me to cultivate a strong sense of community in my adopted country. Similar experiences have been told by people from countries as different as India and Israel, and within them lays the germ for what can be a great global culture, a synthesis of all human civilization.

Individual Actions

Move to a City: See earlier point. Despite their shortcomings, American cities are still better than their suburban counterparts.

Work Less: Just as it does a child, it takes time to raise a community. It is not a freebie. You cannot reap the benefits of a community without contributing to it. Strong communities require active and time-consuming participation, and it is only possible if the members of the community decide that the time spent participating in and nurturing a community is worthwhile, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Industrialization and specialization has resulted in us working almost all our waking hours. But that too is a cultural construct. For the majority of the American middle class, working less, even when it implies a lower salary, will not appreciably change their lifestyle. Perhaps the car can only be changed every six years instead of five. But that is a small cost to pay for a whole additional day every week. Idleness and leisure are the substrate, the stuff, out of which community is made.

Be Nice: To be realistic and honest in one’s assessment, it is hard to escape from the fact that whatever American culture is today, it is likely to stay the way it is for a long time to come. American society is a large one, and a ship this massive cannot be easily steered. I think the best that one can hope for is change in one’s own local community. And in some sense, this is all that really matters. If community matters to you personally, and if you are able to change your own community, then you have accomplished what you needed to do to practically alter your surroundings for the better. From this laser-focused perspective, I think the prospects for change are more realistic. And on this account, my recipe is simple. Be nice. Not nice in the sense of politeness or decorum, although that doesn’t hurt. But niceness in the sense of genuine care, of being a nice person, a good person, a person that cares about others and the larger circle of people that we call our community. If you want a strong community around you, then lead by example. Reset the expectation for what others can expect from you. Be extra nice, generous with your time and your money, your advice and your presence. This will mean doing things asymmetrically. When someone asks for a favor, go above and beyond, so that they are surprised by how nice you are, by how willing you are to commit your precious resources. They might not reciprocate. They are unlikely to reciprocate, because it is not in their culture to be that nice, to give so much of their self to someone else. Do not take it personally. It is not about you and them, but the greater culture. This asymmetry may hurt at first. But do this long enough, and a community will form around you, anchored by you. At first this community may be comprised of people who are already sympathetic, who already feel the tug and call for a stronger connection. But ultimately, as the community grows, its self-evident advantages will become apparent to others, and they will want to join too. A local culture can form around you, and that, in due time, may start to affect the greater culture.

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