Wednesday, May 06, 2009


"A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well."
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America.

I came across this passage from Wendell Berry as I was searching for another where he describes a time not too long ago when insurance for many folks meant knowing who your neighbors were. In those tightly-knit communities families may not have had much money but they knew that if things got rough, their friends and family would do all they could to take care of them. They were not alone. (GW)

Neighborhoods find community

Tough times foster spirit of togetherness

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post
May 5, 2009

WASHINGTON - When Kris Kumaroo founded a new neighborhood association in October, he was driven by a desire to combat recession-era problems such as vacant homes and petty crime.

Seven months later, suburban Glenmont has its crime watch, and much more: As neighbors got out of their homes and started talking to one another, the sense of connection grew. They began to say hello at the grocery store. They had a "visioning" session for their community and created a colorful website. At their first spring festival last month, 174 people showed up for face-painting and hot dogs.

The little Cape Cods and ranchers have been in Silver Spring, Md., for 55 years, but it took a global downturn to turn them into a real neighborhood.

Some sociologists and community organizers say they think there has been an increase in "neighboring" during the recession as residents are reaching out, in person and through e-mail discussion groups. They're talking crime and the economy, helping others through job losses, and organizing money-saving potluck gatherings.

Although the evidence is still largely anecdotal - US Census and other data won't be available until later this year - some scholars say the numbers of those involved in community activities could increase for the first time in years, after a long downward spiral that began in the 1970s because of longer commutes and time pressure on two-income families.

Historically, economic hard times can be tough on civic engagement, as when involvement dropped during the Great Depression. But experts say that doesn't take into account new social technologies, a burst of political involvement among youths, and a president who has inspired many. Experts are waiting to see whether President Obama's call for service will be felt locally, as it has on such national programs as AmeriCorps.

"Almost anyone in America can think in terms of 'This could happen to me.' It evokes a kind of empathy that is leading people to reassess what they value, what they care about and what they believe in," said John Bridgeland, national chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship, a federally chartered nonprofit group that takes the pulse of communities through an annual civic health index. "In my view, we'll find a stronger inclination, a higher level of 'neighborliness' and civic engagement as a result of the economic downturn."

The group estimates that 33 percent of the nation attended a community meeting in the past year and that nearly 40 percent worked with others in their neighborhood to fix or improve something.

Keith Hampton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, runs a Website for neighborhood groups with 50,000 members. Communication on is up 25 percent this spring over last, with talk about topics including vacant homes and community gardens, he said.

"I don't think people will create silos and hide in houses to shield themselves from this," he said. "They're concerned about these issues, and they're going to look for people to help solve those problems. Those tend to be your neighbors."

Even in affluent ZIP codes, there's more to talk about than whether the nearby golf course should go organic with its pesticides. And folks are getting creative: Wilson-Sogunro said one neighbor organized a tool-borrowing collective, another a summer jobs program for teenagers to spruce up the condominium grounds.

"It's like we're a team," said Rob Burnett, 44, of Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles south of Washington. Residents in his subdivision have planted trees, donated items to a neighbor with five children who lost his job, and formed a study group on debt-free living.

"Before, everybody was showing off what they had. Now it's like, 'What can I cut back?' and 'How are you doing things differently?' Before, the guy who has the biggest Hummer on the street was the biggest guy in the world. That's gone."

When Kumaroo, 41, ended his career as a Navy SEAL in 2004 and returned to his boyhood home, he found the area much changed from the peaceful, blue-collar Glenmont he remembered. And it got worse as the economy tanked, with lots of foreclosures and rising robberies and thefts from automobiles.

Now that the Greater Glenmont Civic Association's crime watch is in place, thefts from cars have gone down. At the spring festival, Kumaroo, in a tropical shirt, served as master of ceremonies. Residents chatted and planned their next moves: a bid for more permit parking around the subway, a knitting class for kids, an effort to pretty up the median strips.

Plumber Jerry Booher, 44, manning the grill, talked to a neighbor who lived five houses away whom he had not met - in 13 years. Turns out they'd each been watching a nearby house for suspected drug activity. They compared notes.

Kumaroo surveyed the scene with satisfaction: Children played on swings and jumped on the moon bounce. Latino pop music poured out of speakers. Someone organized an impromptu game of musical chairs, and adults and children were playing, to shrieks of laughter.

"There's change happening in Glenmont," Kumaroo said. "All positive change."


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