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Can community be more than a marketing buzzword?

Article by George Sibley

Community – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Two factors make the idea of “community” almost impossible to talk about intelligently today: 1) everyone thinks he or she knows what it is (and that it’s quaint), and 2) everyone thinks he or she is part of one (or wouldn’t be caught dead in one).

Actually most of us claim to live in several “communities”: “the community of Salida,” say, or Gunnison or Leadville, where we are also part of the “business community” or some other “workplace community,” and if we have kids, part of “the school community.” But also, of course, we might be part of the worldwide “Christian community of believers” or maybe “the gay community,” or both.

Historian Daniel Borstin tells us that the products we buy also make us members of “consumption communities” — Saturn autos has taken this idea to the extreme, so far, of holding “Saturn community” picnics for car owners. Oh, and of course one is also part of the “human community.” Or at least of the “NAFTA community.”

What one has, then, is a Humpty-Dumpty word that means whatever you want it to mean; a word to be thrown over any group of humans (or non-humans) when you want others to think of the group in a kind of warm fuzzy way that “group” doesn’t connote.

With such a word, you do best to let it mean nothing important, out of legitimate concern about the motives of those using it — since more often than not they want you to do or buy something. Nevertheless, I am going to argue that — especially in places like Central Colorado — we need to recapture a concept of community, if not the word.

But I support the concept of community in its original sense of a “community of place” — by which I mean, very specifically, a group of humans organized culturally around a physical place shared as a “commons.”

(Commonscommunity: okay? Without a down-on-the-ground physical commons, there is no community of place, no matter what the realty brochure says.)

Why do I think that renewing a concept of community is important?

Well, as we slide into a global age, the people in our region have less in common. Our citizens aren’t bound together by the local Cattleman’s Association, or by Soil Conservation meetings, or Chamber of Commerce gatherings or 4-H fairs. Besides, I happen to believe that recapturing our sense of community will make life more interesting, more intelligent, and more manageable than it is now.

IT IS PROBABLY IMPORTANT to start by saying what this “reinvented” community of place should not be. It should not be a resurrection of the traditional pre-urban village (that old “over the river and through the woods” Currier & Ives archetype that is, of course, the first thing post-urbanites come looking for when they look beyond the industrial city).

Those pre-urban agrarian villages undoubtedly afforded a sense of belongingness and identity that is missing in modern urban society. But they also tended toward a kind of self-satisfied isolation from other groups. In such villages, an uncompromising enforcement of cultural custom (“this is the way we’ve always done it”), resulted in a stifling of creativity that — from pre-Renaissance times right through our own century — made the places increasingly stifling.

Thus, young energy and intelligence ran away from villages, racing toward growing cities where a person could pursue a destiny unhampered by tradition and its busybody enforcers. From the medieval village to Winesburg, Ohio, the pre-urban village seems to have been an indifferent environment for nurturing some important aspects of human potential.

But the cosmopolitan urban-industrial paradigm that replaced those villages is clearly a system with idiocies and pathologies of its own. Although cities welcomed creativity, at this point, all of that “unleashing of the human spirit” begins to look a little like an unleashing of locusts. Today, the urban-industrial nation-states are pretty clearly devastating the planet while losing control of their increasingly unwieldy “masses.”

You don’t have to be an urbophobe to see wisdom in abandoning the industrial city. Indeed, trying not to waste time hating the city that, like Durrell’s poet Cavafy said, follows us everywhere, might be the greatest challenge for the post-urbanite. But to put cities, and their subtle but powerful patterns of priorities and contracts and specializations, firmly behind us is as important as putting the Norman Rockwell small-town nostalgia behind us.

STILL, BEFORE WE MOVE ON to city-smashing, it’s interesting to look at just how far back this “post-urbanist” dilemma goes. We’re a still-evolving species, maybe four million years old. For less than one percent of that time, we’ve been trying to live in settlements, and like Goldilocks and Alice, everything we try is either too small or too big — or we’re too small or too big for our inventions. So we try to move on. But often we just end up moving back into old ruins. Back and forth.

The first recorded act of “leaving the city” began the whole Judeo-Christian heritage. In that case, Abraham and Lot left Sodom and Gomorrah — which sounded, at least in translation, like pretty mild versions of modern California cities.

Four thousand years later — one tenth of a percent of our tenure on earth — we’re still trying to figure out how to leave the cities behind us. Today, we still haven’t found a way to move on to a better form of settlement, something larger in spirit than the old village, but more manageable in impact than the industrial urb. And Lot’s wife is the troubling image — the one who tried to leave but couldn’t quite, and looked back, and stands forever on a pillar of tears.

There’s no new land, my friend, no

New sea; for the city will follow you,

In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last…

— C.P. Cavafy

SO HOW ARE WE DOING this time, leaving the city? Here, in what we call Central Colorado, most of us are just trying to figure out whether we’re fleeing the imperial city, or just advancing it…

So how can we create a better situation? I think there are a handful of things to keep our eyes on as we fumble along in pursuit of a new “community of place.”

First is the most obvious: the establishment of a “commons.” The current perception is that a place is either private property or public land. But right now, all over the West, from the local town councils to the highest courts, a new relationship is being hacked out between “private property rights” and “the public interest.”

The “takings” legislation popping up everywhere today is the current over-reaction to what may have been the over-reaction to a century-plus of environmental devastations imposed on the common welfare under the cover of property rights.

The same is true with respect to the so-called public lands, so dominant in mountain Colorado: federal land management is under increasingly effective assault from both the left and the right. Citizens are demanding more local control over the lands and, ultimately, a more equal weighting of local and national priorities. This pendulum is not done swinging, but it is pretty clearly not going to get stuck at either extreme.

Thus, we are seeing the shaping of the legal existence of a new kind of “commons”: a common public responsibility. As this “commons” develops, it will be affirmed by zoning laws, planning commissions, citizen reviews, and by the belief that a title to land and resources is not a license for activities that are not consistent with the wishes of those who share a place. But a public commons should also be limited by the belief that personal property can and should be a refuge against the tyranny of the majority.

Already, environmental and jurisdictional concerns over both private and public land usage are necessitating more local citizen involvement and responsibility. And that’s one of the reasons that a renewed concept of community is essential at this time. Which leads us to a third closely related criterion for a “community of place”: a reasonably equitable local economy.”

Long ago, many pre-urban agrarian villages achieved high levels of self-sufficiency and sustainability, and many of them even managed to establish a social equity of distribution. But such communities are certainly not the norm today.

But can a human population in a place claim to be a “community” if it is not focused first and foremost on the “care and maintenance” of its members? When people who participate actively and willingly in the economic life of a place cannot afford to meet basic needs like shelter and food in that place, while others have such goods in excessive abundance, it’s hard to see how the place can call itself a “community.”

BY BOTH OF THESE largely economic criteria, there isn’t much structured “community of place” in Central Colorado yet. If, through changes in energy sources and uses, we are starting, barely, to thrive, conditions are actually becoming more economically inequitable in most of our towns.

Thus, another criterion that I would advance for a successful community of place may sound almost contradictory: strong connections of interdependency with a lot of other places out in the “cultural environment.”

In the past, too much local self-sufficiency descended into smug isolationism. But the “inter” in “interdependency” needs to be emphasized. It speaks for a “two-way dependency” in connections with the cultural environment, rather than the one-way dependency most of us in small towns have today.

Right now, almost everything in our lives, from basics like food and fuel, to all the products and entertainments from which most of us seem to derive our personal identity — they come from outside. They’re not produced locally.

In this regard, the successful community of place will try to trade finished goods for finished goods, rather than the standard rural Colorado “provincial” process of trading raw resources for finished goods. For example, we trade cattle to the city (at city-set prices) for beef from the city.

A true “community of place” will support local efforts to “replace imports” with local production — and will see entities like thrift shops and junkyards as some of its more intelligent businesses. But never to the introverted extreme of “the self-sufficient place.”

Sounds contradictory? Well, nobody said it would be simple.

Connections with other places not only exist, but are inescapable in a modern, electronic age. But it is one thing to bring home news of the world, and another all-too-easy thing to try to make the place “generic.” If we want to achieve a true community of place, we are going to have to find a way to make our connections with the outside world serve us — instead of living as we do today, with our state and federal government, our national media, and our entertainment and educational resources, dominating, regulating, and shaping us.

Another set of strong connections with other places should be — hold on to your hat — reports from the community’s children who have left the community. For old village nostalgitarians, that is anathema. The old village would sell its birthright to anyone promising “jobs to keep our kids at home.” (They still didn’t stay.)

BUT TO THE CONTRARY, a strong community should expect its youth to leave, at least for a time, a decade or so, confident that they will bear good report about the place, and that they may eventually come back themselves. But whether children come back or just stay in touch, their input will help to integrate the community into the larger world of ideas, things being tried, things not working, et cetera, that the home community needs to stay vital.

Finally, for now, a successful “community of place” will be able to entertain and educate itself. It won’t need — and even better, won’t want — five hundred channels of superhighway shopping. It will have places, restaurants and bars, coffee houses and parks, where people will want to go daily, confident in finding truer company there than at home on the couch with the network simulcra.

Local theaters will do homegrown shows about the place and its people rather than Neil Simon reruns. Even childless people will vote for school bonds because the schools will be full of local adults for half the day. The local-access TV channel will be publicly broadcast from a repeater just like the networks.

This, a homegrown capability for having meaningful good times together, will become more important as natural limits begin to force “sustainability” on us all. If less of something is forced on us by natural limits, life is diminished — unless we find more of something that is not limited. And human imagination and energy may be the last, but only eternally renewable, resource we can depend on.

So let’s don’t start worrying about “preserving community” here until we’re sure we actually have some.

I ACTUALLY DON’T THINK we’ve ever had much true community in the West, but that has mostly been because we’ve never needed a community. As historians like Richard White have pointed out, the federal government and big money have worked together to give us the luxury of playing at “rugged American individualism” without having to accommodate ourselves to the hard collective activity that goes into building strong local communities.

You need irrigation works, range and timber access, or disaster relief? Uncle Sam will take care of it. You want some economic activity? Corporate America is right here (as we say in the barnyard) to service you. Burdened by your poor and sick? Put yourself in “the good hands” of your insurance carrier.

But it hasn’t been entirely satisfactory — and now the “Contract on America” people want to eliminate all that benevolent big government, and use whatever’s left to make the whole world safe for big business to go where people are willing to work for even less than minimum wages.

We may have no choice but to learn how to do community right. But if we can avoid some of the old ruts, we might also like it once we start.

George Sibley, a former sawyer, teaches English at Western State College in Gunnison. He also organizes the annual Headwaters Conference, which concerns community this year and runs April 20-23.