On Community

Chris and I had a conversation over dinner the other night about how difficult it is to find a sense of community in our current environment. In effect, the way our society has grown over the past several decades does not encourage people to develop relationships with the people around us. Part of this could be a more transient housing market - people don't often stay in one place for long. Part of it is cultural diversity - in my neighborhood, for example, most of my neighbors speak very little English, and sad to say, I lack the Spanish. Many neighborhoods don't have a community center or local park. It's become common practice to call the police for any complaint, rather than to just talk to a neighbor and work something out. And in Phoenix, it's not like anyone wants to sit outside in this heat.

I am just as guilty as the next person - our neighbors, for example, regularly park directly behind our truck in front of our house. In their defense, a - we don't drive the truck that often and b - it's not a paved driveway. Nonetheless, it really steams me up every time I see it. I almost want to take the truck out and make them move it out of spite. I've even started taking a picture every time I notice it. I think that if they spoke English, I'd have an easier time asking them politely not to park there. But maybe that's not a good excuse.

Another example - there are quite a few small children living on the street, and they tend to play out front in the evenings. Some very small ones were in our yard, totally unsupervised, playing with rocks. I went out and chased them off (I wasn't mean - they really started wandering off as soon as I came out). In retrospect, I wish I'd escorted them back to their caregiver - these kids were just toddlers, and I think they were at least 2 houses down from where they live. We have some very sharp cactus - I should have told whoever was responsible for them not to let them wander so far away.

Chris is very good about this - he'll wander the neighborhood very late at night to ask people to turn their music down. He's always very polite, but firm. He feels it's important to be neighborly. However, some neighbors haven't responded well - one wonders if they'd RATHER we called the police.

I feel that this is one of the reasons social networking sites and online games are so popular. Humans are a social species, and when the places we live fail to offer that social interaction, we crave it from some other source. Nearly all games coming out now have some sort of online or multiplayer component. MMOs are one of the fastest-growing genres. I know that writing this blog and playing games online gives me a great sense of community - from friends all over the country, people I know in real life, and some people I only know through this medium.

I do still miss seeing people face to face, though. Nothing can really replace that. Good thing I still have friends nearby!

Update: Wil Wheaton talks about games as a social activity.


  1. Excellent post. It is definitely a two way street with neighbors. If you say something, they may antagonize you. Another reason people call police or call someone else, retribution. Online communities allow one to talk to kindred spirits. I think it also allows one to control the conversation. If you don't feel like interacting, you don't.

  2. Good point - having control over the conversation is definitely a perk of online interaction.

    I probably should have mentioned, also, that it definitely shows how much libraries matter as community centers - I know that it consistently comes up when people are asked what they want from a library: just a place to go.

  3. I totally agree. It is hard to find a sense of community. I think it goes back to our car culture. People don't go to church, shop for groceries or just plain congregate near their homes. Instead of "calling on" a neighbor we drive miles away to a coffee house or movie theater. When I first had the baby I realized that most of my friends were virtual and started reaching out to other young people through church and rekindling old relationships. I totally value my online friends, epecially those on the Lab forum. But its not the same.

  4. Don't forget about the fear factor. We've been raised in the past 20 years to fear everyone, including neighbors we may see daily. How often do you make eye contact with strangers nowadays? It didn't used to be this way and I think if people were less afraid of the potential retribution of neighbors if you were to scold their children or complain about their music being too loud, then we could (and probably would) have a much stronger sense of community.

  5. Paolo Soleri, a visionary in the field of architecture/urban planning, saw this happening a long time ago. Our urban environment strains human relationships by placing everything so far away, and the current city planning methods work against humans forming strong bonds.... He came up with the visionary concept of arcology, where communities are built in such a way that people have no choice but to (literally) be on top of one another, this encouraging stronger human relationships. Se Arcosanti. However, there can be such a thing as being too close to people, and closeness can be annoying and even scary sometimes, as anyone who's lived in a really small town for any length of time can attest to... It's creepy when everybody knows your business, when you came in last night, who you hang out with, your good and your bad habits... so there may be something to be said for anonymity. Not much, but something.

  6. Surprisingly, this is one of the things I miss about NYC. For all the anonymity that people seem to crave there, apartment buildings are huge social centers--hard to avoid the people who live only a wall away. Now that we have a house out in suburbia, we have been much less social with the neighbors--in fact, I don't know a single one! Living in Tremonton, my mother seemed to know just about everyone who lived on our block and we played freely, and mostly unsupervised, with the neighbor kids. Now we socialize through church, soccer, preschool, etc., not with the locals. Is it a disappearing social scene, the one that actually surrounds us?

  7. I know -growing up in Tremonton and Millville, you just knew everyone. Granted, these were really small towns, but Chris tells me that his parents knew everyone in their neighborhood in Glendale when HE was growing up. I think a big part of it is a shift in societal expectations - a fear of retribution (or litigation), a desire to only interact with people like you, and the simple fact that most people don't stay in one place for very long - no roots.

  8. I agree with the fear thing. Jake and I were just talking about how when we were kids (1980s) people used to turn their garages into mini haunted houses for the kids. It was so neat. I said I'd like to do that one year. He said "Are you kidding? Like anyone would let their kids do that anymore!"


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