CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Many Americans claim they want a strong local community, but few really want to work for it. Everyone at one point or another has a desire for human contact, friendship, sharing experiences, or just being in the thick of things. The realization that real community was largely lacking in the United States—and the revelation that bad urban design played a role in its decline—is one of the central starting points for the New Urbanism movement.
But it’s also worth looking at this issue as it manifests in the “back-to-the-city” movement, the recent demographic trend that has turned once declining urban places into hot real-estate markets. Is the phenomenon of city revitalization fulfilling its promise of better and stronger community ties, as people are lured to places like Brooklyn and Astoria (or Cambridge and Alameda)?
To older residents of these places, many of whom were “first-wave” gentrifiers back in the 1980s or earlier, newcomers to these neighborhoods are secretive, uncommunicative, and never shop at locally-owned stores. The apartment buildings of newer residents are just people warehouses whose occupants will be dispersed within a year or two.
There is some truth to this kind of criticism, even if it is not a new kind of argument. As far back as the 1960s, no less than Jane Jacobs expressed similar concerns about residents of new Greenwich Village apartment buildings in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—even though both she and her husband were newcomers there.
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I have lived in my current apartment for three years and still barely know my neighbors. When I first moved to Boston in 2012, I moved six times in three years and some of my friends have experienced a similar lack of stability. While we do enjoy local restaurants when we can, it is true that my friends and I tend to shop at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or pharmacies and convenience stores like CVS—brands we recognize—rather than independent, local places. One of my current roommates even got his groceries through Amazon Fresh for a while.
One of the concepts from sociology that has come to influence how urbanists think about community is the “third place.” These are spaces and places that are neither homes nor workplaces, where people can gather: churches, libraries, bars, parks, cafes—even sidewalks and street corners. Knowing or at least recognizing people you see at the store or on the bus can build trust and social ties. Even such weak ties can be good for spreading important information or just doing simple favors like watching children, holding spare keys, and so on. A lot of young people aren’t making these ties and becoming an integral part of their communities and neighborhoods. Older residents assume this is because we’re internet-obsessed troglodytes who prefer using our dollars to further line Jeff Bezos’ pockets—and apparently we are just too lazy to show up to community meetings and shop at local stores.
This sort of argument, which I have heard from many quarters in six years of living in Boston, is just laughable. Many older people bought their houses at rock bottom prices in the 1970s and ‘80s, and reaped massive increases in equity—and their student loans were much smaller or nonexistent. They have the money and leisure time to shop at expensive local stores and go to community meetings. The problem is not young people who are supposedly disinterested in community, but our elders who are intent on keeping us out—and using their success and relative wealth to justify their stance.
Many neighborhood institutions simply don’t accommodate the needs of newcomers. Often, local stores offer a bewildering and changing array of hours, always arranging to be open when most people are at work or commuting to and from there. It’s not just local retailers, either. Branch libraries around here tend to be open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Unsurprisingly, librarians and small retailers are quick to complain about their lack of patronage. It’s perplexing that business owners in a place like Boston still think it’s the 1950s.
Longstanding neighborhood organizations don’t seem to recognize these issues. They are ostensibly supposed to represent local interests, especially ones that have an official or semi-official character within the city government, like making recommendations to municipal zoning and licensing boards.
In reality, neighborhood associations often seem devoted to sealing the area off from outside influence, especially new residents. There is an association in my Cambridge neighborhood. They have a website that has not been updated in over a year and similarly dormant social media accounts. Thus one cannot attend a meeting unless one already attends meetings. This is closer to the behavior of an unelected, unaccountable cabal rather than a group interested in being truly representative.
How can these associations claim to care about community when they refuse to allow all residents to participate in it?
Community requires social trust. People who refuse to see new neighbors as anything but a threat are preventing such trust from ever developing. Viewing all change as bad is also counterproductive, especially with how quickly yesterday’s disastrous project by a greedy developer from out-of-town can turn into a beloved town center. (In West Los Angeles, for example, a mall called the Westside Pavillion was fought for years and now people are worried about its closure changing the character of the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times.)
Some people seem to want to preserve their neighborhoods in aspic, or maybe amber, given the property prices these days. But thy forget that not only are communities are constantly changing—they exist for far longer than a single human lifespan.
Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next. The attitude of hostility to newcomers, of excluding them from neighborhood life, will ensure that a sense of place dies with the current occupants. Young people will never develop an attachment to the place if they are not included in civic life or are driven out by rising rents; they will certainly never be able to raise families in places where housing is prohibitively expensive.
In the life of a community, even lifelong residents are ultimately temporary inhabitants. Their stories and traditions are more important than the buildings. If the sense of place they have created over the years is to survive and adapt to new realities, it must find a way to integrate and involve the next generation.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.