When I moved onto my block (neighborhood in decline) in 2008, seven houses (out of 23) were up for sale. I bought a HUD repossessed home. No one on the block seemed to know where the prior occupants went. Two of the houses were on the auction block and one had been abandoned for over 20 years. Shortly after moving onto the block, I was walking past a neighbor’s house early one Sunday morning and the family was jamming a rose bush from the front yard into their car. I said, “I have a trailer you can borrow”. They seemed surprised by the offer, declined it, and drove away. Their home had gone into foreclosure and they returned that morning after moving out the day before to retrieve their rose bush. No one on the block knew they had moved. No one on the block would miss them. Neighbors on this block lived “incognito”, not seen, not valued, overlooked, isolated. In North America today whether in poverty or in wealth, we tend to live in isolation from our neighbors.
Every family on my block that moved that year was in crisis. They literally moved to solve a crisis. Whether job loss, income downsizing, medical crisis, a gambling addiction, a family member’s prison sentence, (all real) or other crisis, help was available but not accessible because of isolation. The residents either did not know, did not dare, were too embarrassed, were in denial, or…, to access services available to them prior to or during their crisis. Agencies and programs did not have tentacles that reached or connected with my neighbors and /or neighbors did not have the social connections or cohesion to take advantage of the programs. Relationships are the tentacles for cohesion and/or access for most of us.
Twelve (12) churches meet in my neighborhood every week. None had capacity to know about or prevent any of these neighbor losses. There was a day when churches played significant roles in building neighborhood cohesion. Today they are largely commuter-based institutions isolated from the neighborhoods they occupy. My neighbors had no relationships with them.
Social cohesion (glue), will to work together, mutual accountability, mutual validation and appreciation of each other’s gifts are precious contributions to human sustainability, wellbeing and neighborhood stability.
Neighborhoods are changing today: It is becoming less common to find diversified neighborhoods (diverse by income, race, family size etc). Whole neighborhoods today are seniors-only neighborhoods, or poor-only neighborhoods, or upscale apartment/condominium neighborhoods etc. Regardless of the nature, they have this in common: the residents live in isolation from one another. There may be other dominant motives for isolation, but two obvious ones are desire for privacy and fear of neighbor. The more neighborhoods are segmented by type (seniors, wealthy upscale, poverty etc) the less the mix of gifts for the common good. In hiring a house cleaner today, you are more likely to hire a “service” than a neighbor.
You may have heard the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child”. That is a nice word picture for North Americans but completely inconsistent with the American contemporary story. Individualism and institutional isolation are our current realities. The “village” imagination requires place-based relationships and place-based services (education, health care, grocery shopping, worship etc). When a homebuyer is looking for a place to live, they might consider things like the quality of education in a school district, distance to and from work, condition of the neighborhood (property values). Most do not have a single conversation with a neighbor on the block where they are considering buying. Commitments to neighbors (“village life”) are not part of the home buying equation today.
One neighborhood in East New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had more than six feet of water in every building. A parish priest was the first one back and as he mopped up the second floor of the rectory, he kept an eye out for the first returnee. When he saw a familiar face, he stopped what he was doing and went to his neighbor and said: “I’ll help you if you help me”. And he did. Then as they worked together they watched out for the next returnee. They approached him saying: “You help us, we’ll help you”. They created a first-come, first-served order, and they worked together to bring back their neighborhood. As a neighborhood, they were 80% recovered in 8 months. Social cohesion, will to work together, appreciation and allocation of neighbors’ gifts, are powerful social determinants in living well. When we live and work together, life is richer, better, more fulfilling and more satisfying. And together we can accomplish or achieve most anything.
Who is the “owner” of a neighborhood story? In the absence of residents coming together, dreaming together, working together to determine the look, feel, quality, condition, and amenities in their neighborhood, there are two dominant forces that will make the decisions: City hall, and market place profiteers.
Isolation disconnects stories. My story, your (neighbor) story, the congregation’s story, the neighborhood story, the city story, the state and national story, the international story, God’s story – the more these stories are aligned, coherent, interwoven, the more life-giving they will be. At all levels, relationships are the fruitful soil for aligned contributions to flow.
Maybe it’s a bit draconian to say: Together we flourish, isolated we fail. Or, maybe it is true? What are your thoughts about place-based living and building social cohesion as anti-dote to isolation?
By: Jay Van Groningen
To learn more about Jay’s work please visit: