Contributed by Peter Lunsford
While we all probably live in a community, the majority of us have forgotten what “community” is really all about, or have never truly experienced it. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll use the following definition of community: “A group of people having and serving each others common interests.” Communities are those groups of people that share common interests and goals. These goals may include cultural exploits, general interests, religious focus, culinary interests, personal enhancement, or even something as simple as basic survival.
Compared to twenty years ago Americans have become more socially isolated. According to a 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review, we are now busy with things like longer work hours, commuting and errands, or meeting the demands of the single life versus the married life. According to the lead on the study, Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, nearly a quarter of the study’s respondents indicated they had “zero” close friends.
Today it is also fairly common for people to live in a neighborhood for quite a period of time and never really know their neighbors. There is some speculation that this happened in large part as a result of housing design, air conditioning and television.
Houses built in the first half of the 20th century usually incorporated a living room in the front of the house. Families typically had the windows flung wide open to let the breeze through and to bring the outside in. A wide porch on the front of the house allowed family members to spend a significant amount of their time enjoying each others company and sharing and observing the comings and goings of neighbors and their activities. Some chores were conducted on the front porch such as snapping beans, shucking corn, churning milk, sewing, courting, chatting, or just enjoying a hot or cool beverage and gossip with the neighbor. Garages were typically separated from the main house and set back to the rear of the property at the end of a long driveway, adjacent to the back yard. Sitting outside was actually preferable to sitting inside, especially on warm days or evenings, and people wanted to be included as a part of their community.
In the latter half of the 20th century, with the dramatic increase in subdivisions being built across America, and the increase in the number of homes that were perfectly climate controlled and included television sets, people moved indoors. Floor plan designs were altered to relocate the living and family areas to the back part of the house, front porches were eliminated or exchanged for back yard patios, and garages were relocated and attached to the front of homes, with shorter cement driveways, and became a major design feature of the residence façade. Neighbors stopped seeing each other every day and were more frequently reunited by invitation. Residents started using the back kitchen door or garage door for entry and exit to the house.
This design change has led to an unintentional estrangement of sorts between the inhabitants of a house and their neighborhood. Neighbors don’t talk with one another as they did fifty years ago. We don’t even consider knocking on the neighbors’ door to borrow a cup of sugar or a few eggs – we would prefer to drive a 3,000 pound piece of machinery to the grocery store rather than disturb them. Privacy has become an expected luxury.
Fifty years ago, the majority of people in a neighborhood mostly attended the same church, the kids attended the same schools and participated in the same after-school activities, and the parents all attended the local PTA meetings and belonged to the same fraternal organizations. There was a sense of community not just in the neighborhood, but also in the organizations and activities in which people participated.
Helping Each Other
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it was common to “help your neighbor” whether it had to do with a barn raising, a field plowing, a harvest, a wheat thrashing, a corn husking, a quilting bee, a share of food, or even tending to the sick. Everyone worked together to sustain the community and help each other with their challenges because the “helped” were always the “helpers” when someone else in the community needed assistance in some way. People pooled their resources to assure the success of everyone in the group.
At the height of the depression about 30% of the working class became unemployed. It was the community to which people belonged that provided the needed support system and leads or clues to opportunities that frequently meant the difference between survival and despair. If you had been laid off, the pastor or priest of your local church would know. He knew hundreds of people in the community and could network to find out where opportunities existed. Churches provided badly needed food and services to those who were in trouble, and counted on donations from those who were more fortunate. The same was true of numerous fraternal organizations.
When rationing was implemented during WWII for various food items, rubber, and other items in demand the neighbors would pool their resources. If the Martin family had run out of sugar and the Taylor family had a surplus, they would share it. There was little hoarding because everyone was in the same situation. If a family on the street had no means of income the neighbors knew it and simply dropped off “excess” supplies.
The call to plant Victory Gardens during WWII was answered by nearly 15 million families in 1942, and more than 20 million by the following year. The reason for the Victory Garden was to supplement the significant food shortfalls caused by the massive need to ship food overseas to support several million troops on the ground. (Food requirements for the troops were measured in billions of pounds per month.) Each Victory Garden was sort of considered a "munitions plant," in support of the war effort.
By 1943, fully 40% of all the vegetables grown for that year's fresh consumption came from Victory Gardens across the country. Lawns were ripped up or turned under and gardens were started in backyards, side yards, front yards, vacant lots, and even along the roadsides, in the medians down the centers of streets and Boulevards, and in window boxes. (See "The War Garden Victorious", by Charles Lathrop Pack, published in 1919.)
Many families had more food than they could preserve or consume so they walked around the neighborhood, visited their neighbors or the local church and passed out the surplus. If a house repair was required, a neighbor frequently offered to help. This was true community. Another benefit of community was the number of eyes watching out for each other. Quite often when a particular family was in need, it was a neighbor who would observe this and covertly communicate the problem to the local church or other neighbors, and everyone would voluntarily chip in to help mitigate the situation, usually in a very humble way. People watched out for each other. There was less privacy.
In the future, our privacy expectations will need to change…drastically. It will be our neighbors and our community that will provide the support networks we will require to survive. If we experience shortages of food, energy, or work, it will likely be our community connections rather than government services that come to the rescue. If we continue to live our lives in total privacy, nobody will know to help.
What should we do now?
- Start to get to know the neighbors in your neighborhood. The best way to do this is to give something before expecting to receive something. Bake a cake, preserve some jam or salsa, or prepare a gift basket of homemade items and then deliver the goods to one neighbor at a time, letting them know you want to get to know them. Start talking about your lives and the future together. Tell them how (and why) you made the jam!
- If you have kids, get involved in the PTA and their extra-curricular activity organizations, booster clubs or volunteer for chaperon duties. It is not unreasonable to assume that after just one PTA meeting you will be horrified about something you heard and will have something to say about what they said. Get involved in your kids education and get to know the other parents. Invite them to socialize with you – perhaps a dinner club?
- After getting to know the neighbors, ask them if they know how to do something you need done, or if they have a skill you need. Blatantly ask them to help you and teach you. Then return the favor with a favor and follow through even if it’s at an inconvenient time. Projects can include helping to prepare a vegetable garden, putting up a permanent clothes line, building a deck, harvesting fruit, building a solar water heater or solar oven, or installing a rainwater harvesting system.
- Ask an adjoining neighbor if they would participate with you in enhancing your property boundary or fence line with a new landscaping approach (that doesn’t shut you off from each other by the way!) All of these projects will get your neighbors interested in what you are doing
- Locate and join and attend a church – there are plenty that advocate virtually any philosophical beliefs, yours included. Churches are communities.
- Locate and volunteer with a fraternal community organization; like the Lions, or Rotary, or Exchange Club, a Woman’s Auxiliary, or the Scouts. Get to know the members and their families. Start to socialize with them regularly – invite them over for a barbecue or to make ice cream with an old time crank ice cream freezer, or both!
- Start an informal neighborhood coop. Offer to order bulk shipments of compact florescent bulbs or dry foods or other commodities to secure volume discounts for the entire neighborhood. Tell them why it’s important and ask for orders (but don’t personally profit from the exercise.) Educate your neighbors on the importance of bulk food storage and rotation and suggest that you collectively buy in bulk as a neighborhood to realize savings. Buy compost or mulch in bulk at a discount at the appropriate seasonal times of the year to enhance your yards.
- Start a neighborhood seed or rhizome exchange for your gardens. Donate the seeds you don’t want and collect more for the foods you like. (Have some unusual flower seeds and other interesting seeds that you don’t want, so you can offer them in exchange for others.) Or offer to buy seeds for the entire neighborhood in bulk, at a discount, to realize volume discounts. When you're doing this, mention to your neighbors why non-GMO seeds are so important.
- Offer to watch the neighbor’s kids if needed, even if they're sometimes snotty little brats. It's a small gesture that might result in big return favors when you most need them.
- Plan neighborhood (or adult) fun days to nearby parks, festivals or entertainment destinations, or organize a periodic neighborhood block party. You don't have to wait for the city to have a party in the park -- make one yourselves. Make it an annual event. Ask neighbors to volunteer to help and make it a real hit.
- Compile and share a contact list for all the neighbors in your area, along with notes of interest they might be known for (like professions, skills, hobbies, memberships, or hunting for example)
- Investigate the online Bright Neighbor tool (www.BrightNeighbor.com) to determine if your neighborhood could benefit.
- Throw a house or yard party, and then subtly suggest in your conversations with everyone who comes that you want to know when they are going to throw their party for you to attend. Suggest an annual or seasonal block party or family picnic where everyone can get together.
- Once “community” has been established you will need things that you simply don’t have, but others do. You will want to trade. Trade becomes an art after a short fashion with everyone bartering to maximize their advantage. You may trade with neighbors (but don’t get greedy.) Your community may trade with other communities. Understand how this works.
- Get involved in your neighborhood association. Get to know the “players”. Suggest improvements to make the neighborhood more neighbor-friendly, and more post carbon friendly.
Obviously there are hundreds of things you can do to get involved, and that involves your neighbors. And it needs to get started now. If you wait for your neighbors or community to start it, it may never, ever happen. So get to work!
If you yearn to be living the homestead life, attempting to be self sufficient on acreage, you will soon come to realize that you simply can’t do everything yourself – you not only don’t have the labor necessary but you probably don’t have the skills and tools to do a very good job of all the things that need doing. A homestead needs things like fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats (if you so choose), eggs, honey, breads, water, energy, soaps and cleansers, lubricants, fabric and garments, hardware, tools, labor, infrastructure, and a thousand other things. To supply it all yourself is an absolutely enormous and implausible undertaking for absolutely everything we seem to need just for basic survival. This is where you really learn what “community” is all about.
Again, community is a group of people having and serving each others’ common interests.
You will have certain skills and others will have certain skills. You will have an overabundance of some things and others will have an overabundance of other things. Your particular piece of land will be favorable for some uses while other land parcels will be more favorable for other uses. This is where you will learn to share, barter, trade, and work to enhance each others advantage so that everyone may share in the overall abundance of the community.
You may have a great vegetable garden and fruit orchard while a neighbor may raise chickens and be able to supply fryers and eggs. Another neighbor may raise goats or beef to provide meat or milk or tallow. Another may be involved in the growing of grasses and grains, and mill flour for everyone or provide feed for animals. Someone down the road may keep beehives and supply honey, or operate a vineyard. Another may be skilled at making cheese, butter or soap. Someone may be an expert seamstress or tailor or cobbler, or blacksmith, and still another may be blessed in the specialized alchemy of beer making!
This is what a community is all about – multiple small entities striving for the betterment of the whole – the sum being greater than its parts. But the key here is that you need to know all of them,... personally! You ultimately must trust each other to provide fairly in return for the same treatment. That’s community. Everyone has the ability to provide something that is meaningful and needed to the rest of the community.
A final thought on community… the more people you know in your neighborhood and communities, the safer and more secure you will be. Start now. Get to know as many of them as possible. Extend the olive branch of friendship and generosity and just see what happens.