Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Note About Community

Suburban sprawl in Colorado Springs, ColoradoImage via Wikipedia

One of the things I wanted to do when I quit my job was to get more involved in the community, in the town in which I lived. It's not a huge town, about 80,000 people, the same size as the city I grew up in. I felt like I was part of my community growing up. We knew people. We waved to people on the street. And while that happens occasionally here, and I've been thinking about why. I think there are differences, obviously between where I live now and where I lived 30 years ago, but I am also living my life differently than my parents did. All of those factors are coinciding to make me feel like a failure at getting involved, at feeling a part of the city around me.

First, the town. The biggest difference between where I am now and any other city of this size I've lived in (and I count 3) is that it's a suburb of a major city. As such, it's kind of considered part of that city, as are the many communities that surround the town. I'm not used to there being anything but the town itself and then the rural areas surrounding it. The effect of this is that people are splintered. Not everyone works and goes to school within our city limits. And the city isn't trying to provide enough jobs for that. So, people go off to work in the city or in another suburb or in a town 45 minutes away. And while all the kids eventually filter into the same public high school, being near a large city means that there are lots of other options for schools. There are at least three other private schools in our township alone and in the surrounding area, there must be 10 or so more, and then there are religious schools, Jewish, Catholic, etc. In fact, I don't know our neighbors across the street because all their kids go to the nearby Catholic school.

Where I grew up and in the other cities I lived in, there were no other options really. In one place, there was a Catholic school. In another, a fundamentalist Christian school. And a handful of people were sent off to military school, usually after something really bad happened. So most of us, whether we lived next door to each other or across town, ended up in school together. Parents got to know each other, even if they just saw each other at the various school events and weren't going to PTO meetings or running the bake sale. I ask about my old friends' parents. I remember them well.

Counter intuitively, where I live now is quite insular compared to the similar-sized towns of my past. Here, generations of people grew up and went to the same schools and churches, lived on the same streets. They have cousins three blocks over and their mothers watch their kids for them while they work or when they go out for an evening or even a weekend. There's no need, then, for most of these people to reach out to neighbors for carpooling or babysitting, thereby creating a connection and perhaps a friendship. There's also a tendency for people who've lived here their whole lives to assume everyone else has, too. I've noticed this happening in a number of contexts, and it's merging with my experience in thinking about audience and teaching students how to think about audience. I've decided a lot of people don't think about it.

The most blatant and kind of sadly funny example was the web site for an event that occurred today, but which I had never attended until today. Go ahead, visit the site. Does it make you want to go? Do you even know where to go? Do you know what kind of activities there will be? It's there, but it's hard to find. Who's this site for? Like most sites, of course, it has multiple audiences, but it's clear to me that it's focused on one in particular. This is a huge event, and if you've lived here forever, you already know about it. You either enjoy it or not. You go every year or you don't. If you are new to town, well, the web site isn't going to help you much. It's very indicative of the prevailing attitude.

The other towns I've lived in had large influxes of new people pretty constantly, so they all tried to make sure newcomers felt welcome, that they knew what the special events were in town, that they were kept informed. One town I lived in had an event similar to the one I attended today and for weeks leading up to it, banners were everywhere that touted the event, giving the date, time and location. In other words, buzz. The local news covered it. There's no local news here, an artifact of being a suburb.

So it's easy to not feel a part of the place, and while there are reasons within the environment for that, there's also my own personal issues. What I've found is that it takes a lot of effort to become a full-fledged member of the community. Effort that I find very exhausting. I used to think I was an extrovert, and it's true I really enjoy being around people, but I'm not the kind of extrovert that walks up to people I don't know or don't know very well and just starts up a conversation. If they come to me, fine, but I find it difficult to be the one who initiates things. My mother, completely the opposite. She will strike up a conversation with anyone. So, if she lived here, she'd be fine. Hell, she'd probably be president of the PTO by now.

Part of me longs to be back in one of those other places, where I'd see the same people at the farmer's market every Saturday rather than the random people I see at the one I go to here. But I wonder if my lack of ability to reach out wouldn't hinder me in those other places, too. I was younger when I was in those places, and that may be a difference, too.

I'm not giving up, though. I'm just recognizing the factors at work here, and trying to work around them. I'm going to write the township day planners, cause I had a great time today, and it's a shame I've lived here for 6 years and haven't gone to this event. I'm going out drinking with the PTO moms. I'm actually thinking about having a block party. In 20 years, maybe I'll have roots here. Or maybe it will be time to give up and move to Florida.
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