“Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy”. Founding Father, writer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, printer, and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, fully understood that water, hops and barley were vital to the health of our communities. He accomplished so much in his lifetime, but his quote about beer is probably his greatest achievement.
Beer is so much more than just the frothy elixir of life, it brings people together and we could all use a whole lot more of people coming together.
What is community if not the relationship between people? A community isn’t a collection of houses, just as a house isn’t necessarily a home, it’s the relationship you have with the house or the neighborhood that determines such things. Just because people live in close proximity to one another, doesn’t make it a community, those people have to know one another, they require some type of relationship. These relationships are what we are missing in our lives.
What I think we overlook about community is that it requires a place to occur. For there to be a sense of community, there must be a place for people to convene, and the Walmart parking lot isn’t going to cut it. The aisles of Dollar General do not facilitate these interactions. It’s not something that happens in cars and it’s not something that happens online. A sense of community can only occur when people gather- face to face. It requires quality public space.
A few years ago I was touring a midsize town on the eastern edge of Ohio with some local elected officials. The downtown was empty… windows covered up, and doors boarded up. The businesses that were open had dark tinted glass. The public square had been turned into a war memorial. The heart of the community was no longer beating. I asked where people go to get together, where do residents gather? Silence. I asked again. They had no answer, but later in the day they asked me how they can keep young people from moving away. They didn’t see the connection. They didn’t understand that without friends and relationships, a place no longer matters, that there is nothing tethering you to it. They didn’t realize that in removing the public part of the town, that there wasn’t much of a town left. The sense of community had been stripped away and all that was left was the houses. People don’t get attached to houses, they get attached to homes. A city must also function as a community if you want people to care about it.
When I worked as a Main Street Manager in Lancaster, Ohio, I started a kickball league as a way to make some friends in my new city. The league was a huge hit. We had 200 people sign up to play the first year. It was an absolute delight to see 200 adults hanging out at the big park in the center of town on a sunny Thursday evening. Afterwards, everyone went to the local bar and and drank beer together. Locals were in the process of creating a community. 20 and 30 something’s were feeling some roots in their town for the first time. Friendships were being forged. We all began to feel an attachment to our town that had not been there before. Our collective house was becoming a home.
Two years down the road, in Lancaster, city council wanted to tear down one of the most substantial buildings in the downtown. A 30,000 square foot building that dated back to the mid-1800’s. They said it was an eyesore and it had to go. This building sat on the most prominent corner of town and if it went, all that would be left of this downtown block was parking. It was a cornerstone.
So I called for reinforcements, and the kickball team answered my call. I know the individual players didn’t necessarily care about preservation or this particular buildings, but they cared about one another. Over 50 people joined me in front of the building with our big “This Place Matters” sign. We had a couple local papers come out for the event. Council had to put the demolition on pause. They didn’t realize anyone cared. They were wrong. That building has since been renovated to the tune of nearly $6 million dollars and the downtown is as active as it’s been in 100 years. Kickball and beer made the difference.
My wife, Amber, and I love a good block party. There is nothing more fun that getting down in the middle of the street. Maybe it’s because without barricades, we never get to set foot in the street or maybe because it feels just a little it dangerous. Fortunately, we live in a neighborhood that makes it easy. Log-on to the municipal website, fill out a short form and submit your $25. Afternoon of the event, the barricades will be placed at the end of your street. Bring out some beer, crank up some music and the next thing you know, you have a party in your street.
With every block party, our home becomes worth more to us, so in essence it becomes worth more, as we are less likely to sell. When this happens time and time again all around the community, prices go up as the supply stays stagnant. With each block party, we grow more attached to our block, which means we grow more attached to our community. In making it easy to get together, the municipality has made it more likely that we will make friends and build relationships. Our town is making it easier for us to put down the roots that really matter. Every time we drink a beer in the street with neighbors, property values rise.. See- it’s simple. Beer. Friends. Home.
We have long been sold on the idea that jobs that will save our community, but a couple of decades of pushing this agenda has not resulted in any success. We can’t keep conflating jobs with civic health. Certainly, people need a place to work, but adding more jobs does not make a community a better place to live- but in making a community a better place to live, we consistently see increases in jobs. That’s because as a local community grows stronger and healthier, local businesses inevitably spring up. The best and brightest are less likely to move away. Existing talent stays and new talent arrives. Ideas improve. Local industries and organizations grow stronger and more successful.
We have grown too academic in our thinking about cities. People are rational and make rational decisions with the information they have- but they are also emotional- and we have stripped away the concept of emotion in our decision making at the government level. When people make decisions, they often make them with their emotions. We will pay more for something that is pretty, we will value something more if it carries a sense of attachment with it. We will fight for something that matters to us. We have to give residents more to care about. Citizens need proper roots and a stronger attachment to their towns.
So getting back to beer. The point is- we need more beer. It’s not just beer though, it’s wine or seltzers or cocktails. But it’s not just alcohol- it’s socializing. Cities need to provide residents with considerably more opportunities to socialize. Residents need to do their part as well and throw more parties and have more get togethers. We need to get together more and beer just happens to be the ultimate draw. Beer is the greatest excuse to hang out and chat with other people. Beer helps people convene. Most people will find time to sip a beer with their neighbors if offered the opportunity. Little else has that kind of pull. Certainly, there are non-alcoholic means of doing this, but for my purposes, I want to keep it simple, because in the end, simple is easier and more likely to happen.
Our cities need to be more than a collection of houses, they have to be communities. They need a be places where people feel a sense of belonging and deep roots. They have to feel like they are a part of the fabric that holds everyone together. This is what makes a place special. This is what will make cities strong and resilient. It’s also what will raise property values and increase jobs. It’s not as complicated as we make it. We are all people, so we have a pretty good idea of what people want. They want to hang out with their friends. They want to make new friends. They want to have some fun. They just want a little beer, because beer helps.