Questioning “community”

A WaPo piece highlighting a sad trend among Americans: We are less neighborly than we used to be.

In 2016, the share of Americans who say they “never” socialize with their neighbors hit an all-time high of 34 percent, according to the General Social Survey. That number’s been rising steadily since 1974, when just 21 percent said they never hang out with their neighbors.

The trend holds for urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods, though is more pronounced in urban and suburban areas.

We often think of cities as fertile grounds for social interactions between neighbors and acquaintances who spontaneously bump into one another on the street, sharing news, gossip and camaraderie. But the numbers above suggest that a sizable portion of city-dwellers are determined to avoid interacting with the people who live nearby — or, perhaps, that the circumstances of their lives are so hectic as to forestall most neighborly interaction.

That last quote is especially important, I think. I’m not sure this is even a surprise to most people—especially those who’ve actually lived in urban areas. It’s no surprise to me. But so much of our framework for how to think about community—as a practical, political, and even spiritual exercise—is premised on the assumption that things like physical proximity and “collaborative” living builds community. That, for example, pooling funds to pay for your neighborhood kids’ education brings us closer together. That sharing healthcare costs as a “national community” helps build empathy and mutual understanding. That public transit is an “equalizer”—used in equal proportion by both the rich and poor.

I wonder if these things more often have the exact opposite effect. Do they stir up more bitterness than trust? Do they sow division instead of empathy, like when stakeholders cannot agree on what curriculum everyone’s taxes ought to prop up in the public schools?

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