From a Neighborhood to a Community

… change does not happen when no one takes ownership of the community.

I have written frequently about what is wrong about suburbs and where I grew up. My criticism of suburbs have centered on how they fail to create communities. Everyone in a suburb lives in their own self-contained universe that does not require interaction with the people around them. Even though they are large neighborhoods, they are hardly communities. This is at least how I, someone who is not LDS, perceive where I grew up. Perhaps it would be different if I was one of those people who walked to church every Sunday morning (considering that churches are only two or three blocks apart at most) and would worship with all my neighbors. Even then, though, the fact that I feel like I don’t have a connection with my community means that it has failed; a good community includes all of those who live in it, not just those who are LDS.

So having established that the neighborhood where I grew up is broken, I must ask how it could be fixed. I know what the problem is: my neighborhood is not really a community, but rather a collection of bubbles. So a solution must somehow pop those bubbles and turn my neighborhood into a community. There is some public space where I live, a few small parks. Trouble, though, is that people rarely use them as public space, so I have been trying to think of how people could be convinced to use public space. One classmate of mine suggested ending the segregation of homes and businesses; perhaps if stores like coffee shops or (more realistically in a neighborhood where LDS churches are only a block or two apart) cafes were to break up the monotony of houses and provided public space, our suburbs wouldn’t feel like such isolated places. This idea may not be feasible, however.

They did not start with big projects meant to transform the riverside. They were merely the first movers to adopt the river into the community.

So what else could I do to try to turn my neighborhood into a community? I came up with an idea simply by reading an essay, “Of things seen and unseen,” by Alexie Torres-Fleming.

Ms. Torres-Fleming witnessed the destruction of the community where she grew up, the fall of the Bronx. Like many, she initially fled, but later she returned to the neighborhood where she grew up and sought to revitalize it. She participated in marches against the crack houses and helped with the founding of community groups intended to revitalize certain parts of the community, specifically the Bronx River.

I had two big takeaways from her essay. One was that change does not happen when no one takes ownership of the community. When she was growing up, everyone was disowning the South Bronx. Landlords were burning their apartments for insurance money and all anyone wanted was to leave. When she returned, though, people began to fight back against the negative powers overtaking the South Bronx. She required youth in her programs to walk through their neighborhood, see it, and understand that what they saw was theirs. If their neighborhood was to change, they were the only ones responsible to make it happen. Once they understood this, change did happen.

The second was how change can begin. I was fascinated by how projects for transforming the Bronx River began. They started merely by taking a bunch of canoes to the river and offering rides to whoever would come around. They held events at the river. In short, they made the river a fun place to be, a place where people wanted to be. They did not start with big projects meant to transform the riverside. They were merely the first movers to adopt the river into the community.

Perhaps the key to changing my community is to encourage community events. 

When reading this, I remembered some of the times I did feel like I was a member of my community and glad to be there. A house not far from our home held a couple block parties when I was young. We didn’t know who owned the home, but I was welcome there. Many of my neighbors were there, and the kids played, the adults mingled, and a band played in the backyard. I enjoyed those times.

My grandpa has talked about when he grew up and people in the community would do things together. He lived in Blackfoot, Idaho all his life, and when he grew up, the community would have events together. There were baseball games, dances, and other events. Sadly, these events no longer happen today, which he has noticed but I haven’t, naturally because I haven’t lived long enough to know things changed.

Perhaps the key to changing my community is to encourage community events. My neighborhood, at least, would have a “community club,” an organization responsible for planning, providing, and promoting events that anyone in the community could join. These could be 4th of July barbeques, Halloween parties, Christmas gift exchanges, New Year’s parties, or just random block parties throughout the year. These events would be regularly promoted and held all throughout the suburb in what public spaces there are, such as school yards and the parks. These events would help bring people out of their homes and into places where they can mingle with each other. The club would be supported financially by the members of the community or hopefully reach enough funds to have some sort of endowment providing continual support (I will admit that funding is the most difficult aspect for starting such an organization; relying on support of members of the community would likely end in the club being underfunded due to the free-rider effect, so other sources should be sought, such as church or business sponsors and maybe even an initial endowment providing continual income). Hopefully such clubs would become a staple of every suburb and neighborhood in the Salt Lake valley, and neighborhood planners would be sure to provide ample public space within neighborhoods (such as parks) for the clubs to function in.

These clubs would transform my neighborhood. I know that I would have more ownership of where I live if they existed, and I believe the other residents would feel the same. While this would not fix all the problems associated with suburbs, I think this would solve one of the big ones, without disturbing the community’s layout. All that’s needed is a first mover to bring this change.

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