A city or a town cannot be successful, or only to a marginal degree, if it is not also a community. A city aims to serve its residents, but this is simply not enough, a community provides them with meaning. Let us not make the mistake of assuming that a city and a community are the same thing. A city is a place where people are located, but a community is where people live. A city is where people have their houses, but a community is where they have their homes. A city is where people share roads, in a community, they share their living rooms and porches. In a city, people are independent, in a community, people count on one another. A city is simply a designation of a jurisdiction of government, a community is something far greater. Cities are a legal designation created to provide residents the necessary utilities they require, but a sense of community provides people with a sense of belonging and a shared experience. A sense of community provides people with something a city never can, and a city won’t thrive unless its residents feel a sense of community. It may not be the city governments role, but city leaders would fare much better if they gave it more consideration. It is also the responsibility of all residents to work towards building a sense of community. Just as a garden requires tending, so do friendships and so does a community. There is nothing in this world that doesn’t require effort and maintenance and if people want to enjoy the benefits of being part of a community, they will need to make an effort.
A community is what binds us together. Think of our interactions as a series of lines on a paper. The more those lines intersect, the stronger a community is. These lines are actually the fabric that holds our town together. Remove those lines and once again, we just have a series of individuals that reside in a series of houses. What we lose when those lines don’t cross is the feeling of being part of something bigger. The enriching feeling that comes from knowing people care about you and you care about other people. The experience of knowing you are not alone and if worse comes to worse, your fellow community members will come to your aid. There are other benefits to community as well. Like feeling a sense of responsibility for upholding certain standards, like keeping up appearances. Or the realization that a community requires we get involved and can’t just complain on the sidelines. That understanding that improvement doesn’t happen without engagement and action. A community requires participation, it requires caring and concern, it won’t just happen without effort, but rest assured, everything you give to your community, will dwarf what you get back. But here is the point to understand, it does not and will not happen on-line or in your car. It must happen in person and face to face. Nothing else will suffice. So the question we eventually have to ask ourselves, if we want to live in a community is this, are we willing to share ourselves with other people?
There is no indication that people today are any different from people of before, just as there is no indication that people that live in one place are any different than people that live in another place. Since the advent of bitching, old-timers have been complaining about “kids these days”, and kids these days are the same as the always were. This phrase is irksome, because it places blame on the generation behind and seems to abdicate the current generation from any responsibility as to the way things are. Whose job is it to teach the generations that follow? I hear people complain about kids not getting involved these days. Did we teach kids how to get involved ? Don’t pretend they don’t care because it’s simply not true. I want to hear someone that grew up in the 60’s pull aside a millennial and tell them how they stood up for what you believe in back in your day. Teach them how community works. If they have never even experienced it, why do you look to them to suddenly embrace it. I didn’t grow up with a sense of community, so I didn’t have a clue what it meant until I left my home town and went out into the wide world and found it. Once you understand how a sense of community works and feels, you can appreciate how it shapes your life and why it matters, but you just can’t grasp these concepts until you have experienced them.
People are just not that different. Circumstances may be different, environments may be different, but people simply are not. The people living in a different town, or a different time are made of the same stuff as you or me. Take someone that lives in rural West Virginia and drop them in New York City, you would find they walk a great deal more on a daily basis, because that is how the city is built. Take someone from New York City and drop them in rural West Virginia, they would end up in their car far more frequently. I am no more neighborly by birth than someone that lives in a cul-de-sac, but I have a detached garage, a front porch, sidewalks and my kids school district has no bussing. I know my neighbors well and I like it that way. I imagine a number of people would like it as well. It can be difficult to relate to circumstances you aren’t able to experience, but this is what we must try to do.
People truly are the same in the matters that count. Certainly they look different, they talk different, they may worship different or vote different, but I am not talking about what they do different, I am talking about who they are in terms of what is important to them. 99% of people, regardless of origin, faith, politics, gender, age, want to feel safe, they want to be loved, they want to experience a sense of belonging, they want to be happy, they want their family to feel secure, they want to have meaning in their life, they want to feel a sense of accomplishment. The biggest mistake we can make is to pretend that other people are somehow different from ourselves in what matters. This is self serving and its ignorant and is simply an excuse to remain in our own little bubbles. It’s not just ignorant though, it’s dangerous as this behavior is chipping away at the foundations of our society. But here is the thing, it doesn’t have to and it’s easy to stop.
So what does a sense of community require? What does it look like to you? How do you think it works in other places and how do you think it used to work in your town?
Building community is easy and it only takes one simple thing. Being together. There are certainly other things that can be done to help restore a sense of community, but the number one thing we must do is be together. That’s it. It all stems from simply being together, face to face, in-person. If we take this one simple step, things will begin to improve. There is no way around it. And honestly, that is not an overly onerous task. Most people really like being around other people. I like to think of it as making more friends. Who doesn’t like having more friends? Let’s make decisions to make it easier to make more friends. If we focus more effort on making more friends, our lives will change and so will our cities.
It is important to point something out here though, this rebirth of community will not take place online. When is the last time you came away from Facebook feeling any closer to anyone? I can’t recall seeing anyone on Facebook ever say “you were right and I was wrong, thanks for enlightening me” Community doesn’t happen in a car and it doesn’t happen on the internet. It happens on front porches, public parks, downtown and on the sidewalk. It takes place on foot. Check your social media feeds less and opt to walk whenever possible. These simple steps will bring about a change, guaranteed. They have for me. I have met so many more people by just being out on the sidewalk and feel so much more a part of my place for it.. This is important to remember too. When we see our neighbor in the yard, we don’t act like the idiots we do in our car or online, we are civil. There is a reason for this and it matters. It is our inclination as people to try and get along with people. I want to reiterate this, because you all know this is true, but so many of us have forgot, when we meet in person, we are civil. Face to face, we seek common ground because we want to get along. This is why community can only happen in person. When we meet in person, we are reminded of the things we have in common and we set aside the things that make us different. I don’t care what my neighbors politics are, he is my neighbor and he is a good person and I want to be a good neighbor in return. This is how community works. You can have this thing, not only is it simple to acquire, but it will be the best thing you have had. It will make you happy, it will make you feel a sense of belonging, it will reduce the burden of local government, it will make your kids want to stay in town when they graduate, it will make you feel proud of your city. A sense of community has so much to offer and it is not hard to obtain, it is right there for the taking. The choice is yours though, you can continue doing the same thing you have, and that is fine, but don’t pretend anything will change. Or you can do something different and you can have the confidence of knowing things will change. The choice is yours, but I believe it’s an easy one. Take one night off from Netflix a week, invite someone over for cards, go for a walk, start up a sports league, or a book club. I started an adult athletic league in my previous town and it ended up having a tremendous impact in the community. It created new bonds between people and deepened existing ones. It absolutely made people feel more connected to their community, because they found people they cared about. In the end, because those people cared more, they become more active on issues that mattered. In creating a fun social activity, the city changed for the better, unequivocally. Decide on a policy you think would help improve the city and start hosting get togethers to discuss the policy face to face. Create a cleanup club and every Saturday morning, spend a couple of hours fixing things in disrepair. The options are limitless and the impacts are profound. Every single one of us deserves to experience a sense of community, you just have to be willing to open your doors and walk outside.
– Jeff Siegler