What happened to the strong American community, as depicted, for instance, in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town?” Why is that a relic of the past rather than a reflection of the present?
Take the town I live in now. My wife and I moved in about five months ago. One neighbor gave us some banana bread as a moving in gift. We appreciated and returned the favor a couple of days later. We also went around with some holiday gifts to our nearby neighbors. Very little enthusiasm or appreciation was showed. We feel a little isolated.
Now I am not in need of pity. But I would like to point out that this is not atypical. Most communities I have lived in the last few years (about five different ones in four different states) are about the same. Individuals and families seem isolated from their neighbors. Why is this the case?
There are probably many factors. Leviathan, our bloated government, I am sure, is at least partially responsible. How? There are several ways.
One reason is zoning. I like to talk to the old timers about this area. Back in the 1950s, kids could play anywhere in the neighborhoods. There wasn’t really a bad part of town like there is today. If there was, it was much much smaller. There were corner restaurants and neighborhood grocers. People could (and did) walk to work, to shop, to school, and for recreation. Cars were primarily used for weekend excursions, of which there were plenty. There was an optimistic, positive energy associated with the town. Businesses were booming, families were growing. People were connected.
Downtown shopping declined sharply once a farmer in the outskirts of town (in another neighboring town, actually) sold his farm to a developer to build a mall. More farmers sold land to residential developers. Large residential areas were built, and people started moving out of the downtown area. Renters started moving in.
I have a hard time believing that zoning had no part in the development of large residential areas and a large commercial mall. Cars, of course, were a necessity, to shop, to go out to eat, to go to work, as well as for recreation. The pedestrian has become an endangered species. This is in contrast to Wilder’s “Our Town,” where residents walk to the grocer and the drug store and soda shop daily and interact with a real person they actually know, instead of a face with a nametag.
Today, farmers are selling off their land. There’s still some farmland close by, but that is getting more and more rare all the time. Strip malls gradually fill in the spaces, and shoppers go to an impersonal Sam’s Club or Walmart to get groceries, Lowe’s for hardware, and Best Buy for electronics. I wonder how many strip malls we’d have if there was no zoning. Today I get amused when I hear about zoned “mixed-use developments,” where city planning commissions try to remake the traditional American town structure with residential, commercial, and recreational interests all within walking distance. It’s the same sort of pattern we see with the government nearly everywhere. For instance, they hunted wolves nearly to extinction in the early 20th Century, and then spend much of the rest of that Century up to today trying to get them back. Which leads us to ask, “Why didn’t they just leave things alone in the first place? Wouldn’t they have been better off?”
Another reason for the declining strength of the community is surely the tax burden. How can a family live off of one income comfortably when 35 to 40% (or more) of their income is gobbled up in various taxes and tax-related expenses? And so both parents feel the need to work to provide for their families. In Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the women were really the glue that kept the community connected, in neighborhoods and the church choir, for instance. Take them away and a ghost town is left, at least during the day.
Of course, inflation is part of this, too. Prices don’t go up all by themselves. They need some help from the Federal Reserve. And the good ol’ Fed is glad to comply. Most of us think inflation is a necessary evil, and so we go along. It wasn’t always so.
A third reason is the overall mindset. A community used to actually take care of its citizens. It was the safety net for anyone involved, like a mutual society. Along the same lines, I like hearing Ron Paul talk about church-owned hospitals. But now we have another safety net, Uncle Sam, Leviathan, or just the gov’mint. They are here to take care of us! Haven’t you heard? Tax dollars can pay for school breakfasts and lunches, for health care, for gas and food and rent. It’s a miracle! And so the gov’mint, for many, has replaced the need for voluntary societies. What is the incentive to have a voluntary society when a compulsory society accomplishes the same purposes?
And so what is the mindset? Instead of, “I’ll go ask my neighbor for a cup of sugar,” it’s “I’ll just use my WIC coupons.” Instead of, “I’ll ask my neighbor for a ride to the doctor’s office,” it’s “I’ll use a taxi and charge the taxpayer. It’s free, right?” Why do we need a village as our community when the government fills that function?
A fourth, related to the third (maybe 3b) is a pessimism about life in general, which is a partial reflection of foreign and domestic policies which make our country more dangerous and expensive, both within and without. Hearing the news barrage us with information about the latest violent crimes surely doesn’t help. It certainly doesn’t help me. Nor am I amused to find about the latest foreign adventures our government is embarking upon, nor the billions of foreign aid that frequently goes (sometimes to both sides) in a regional conflict not of our concern.
In short, by a forceful effort to “globalize,” our communities are marginalized!
As a Mormon, it is important to maintain strong community ties, especially within a ward organization. Such is Zion! And yet in the world, despite all of our “progress,” it feels like there are more barriers between individuals and families than there have ever been.
I recognize that if enough individuals were willing to maintain strong community ties (and there are those) that strong communities would remain, despite high taxes, bad policies, and a distorted mindset. The government cannot meet every need, especially the most important ones: those involving human interaction. But for those swimming upstream just to provide a good life for their families, it sometimes seems as if the deck is stacked against them.