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Perspectives on Community Life in America  

by William McGaughey, Jr.

Personal identity becomes meaningful in the context of community. Yet, community life is declining in the United States. The following may offer some perspective on that situation.


Gwinnett County: The Idea of an Anti-Community

        There is a place called Gwinnett County just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Since 1984 it has been the fastest-growing county in the United States for counties with 100,000 or more residents. From a population of 72,300 in 1970, Gwinnett has grown into a bustling megasuburban complex in which more than one quarter million persons live. You could call it a “complex” for want of a better term to describe the Gwinnett phenomenon. This is not a city or conventional suburb, but a new type of community - or “population center” - which is peculiar to American life in the 1980s. You can find much the same type of place near other large cities: In Orange County, California, for instance; or in DuPage County, Illinois, just west of Chicago.

When a newspaper reporter (from the Wall Street Journal) wandered around the large shopping mall which serves as Gwinnett County’s unofficial community center, she was struck by the large number of people wearing tee shirts which promoted athletic teams associated with other places. One was worn by a fan of the Chicago Cubs; another, by a fan of the Boston Celtics; and so forth. None of the tee shirts advertised anything connected with Gwinnett County or its surrounding area. So, too, the reporter noticed that one new resident of the county had designed the deck of her “dream home” to be built around a street sign taken from an unglamorous town in Ohio where she and her husband had once lived. If Gwinnett County physically has the people, their hearts seem to be located elsewhere.

What is it about this fast-growing community in northern Georgia which makes it less a community than a place without a sense of community? The woman who built the above-mentioned deck made the following observation: “Nothing here makes sense. the roads don’t make sense. Their names change. Nothing is convenient. Nothing is close - not Atlanta, not your stores, not your family, not your friends.” Gwinnett County is a collection of houses and commercial buildings put together quickly be real-estate developers. There appears to be little coordination or planning. Each developer simply developed his own subdivision, turning farmland into residential lots arranged in a spaghetti-like grid of streets, none of which connected with the streets in other neighborhoods or had the same name. There were few sidewalks or street lights in these developments. There was no public transportation. “I wouldn’t know if there was a major sewage spill across the street. They’re in another civic association,” a resident declared.

Public transportation is one institution which makes for a sense of community. People of different occupations, ages, and experiences sit side by side on buses, and sometimes they talk. In the case of Gwinnett County, there are no public buses. Only 5 percent of its residents commute each day to work in downtown Atlanta. The remainder are evenly divided between those who work in other counties and who work in another part of Gwinnett County itself. As a result, traffic is moving in every which direction, and has become steadily more congested.

The traffic flow in the county is slow and chaotic. The newspaper reporter observed that “at any given time a good number of people seem to be driving around in circles, lost.” It used to take a certain woman three hours to drive her daughter into downtown Atlanta each week for a 45-minute violin lesson. Part of the traffic problem may be the result of a decision by the Gwinnett county authorities not to hook up with Atlanta’s light-rail system. Some view this as a conscious decision to separate the predominantly white suburban areas from the black population in the inner city. However that may be, Gwinnett County has evidently preferred the “rugged individualism” of solo drivers on the open highway to any system smacking of community concerns.

What is the focus of community in most cities and towns? It may be the corner grocery store, or a popular movie theater where the teenagers hang out, or, perhaps, a neighborhood drug store, hardware store, or restaurant. While Gwinnett County has commercial establishments to handle these various functions, it has grown too big too fast to allow any of them to acquire the fond traditions associated with community. The chains of super stores with their discount prices and the Seven-Eleven or Kangaroo type of convenience store have moved into this impersonal, nowhere kind of neighborhood. In such a place, there is little for teenagers to do for entertainment except to taunt the red-coated security guards at the Gwinnett Place Mall.

Because Gwinnett County is populated mainly by corporate transients, few have roots in the community. There are, for instance, few grandparents among the Yuppie invaders. Because its affluent lifestyle generally requires both husband and wife to work, the neighborhoods of Gwinnett County lack the informal community networks which in other places and times have been created by sociable housewives. It is just a collection of high-achieving individuals who work long and hard for their money, and then drive home alone to relax in the privacy of their own homes with the help of a television set and VCR.

When we consider the type of society in Gwinnett County, let it be clearly understood: We are not talking here of social or economic deprivation. Gwinnett County represents the best, not the worst, which American society has to offer. This is where the cream settles which has risen to the top. The social dregs do not live here because they cannot afford it.

I should correct myself. There is at least one person living in Gwinnett County who, by community standards, does not deserve to be living there. He is a 68-year-old curmudgeon named Fred Dutton who has lived all his life within a three-mile radius of his current property, for which he paid $125 years ago. This he has turned into a combination of a private rabbit-hunting preserve and a dumping ground for old trailers, bird cages, and lawn mowers. Dutton’s eyesore is located a short distance from the brick-framed entrance to one of the county’s most expensive neighborhood developments. Such a direct threat to her property value moved one unhappy resident to complain: “That should have been cleaned out long before anybody moved in here. They should have bribed that guy to get him out.” Fred Dutton, for his part, has an equally low opinion of his new neighbors, who he thinks have sold their souls for material advancement. “It’s getting to the point around here where you’re going to have to hire somebody to cry at your funeral,” he said.

I do not wish to pick on the actual Gwinnett County, Georgia. There is probably a lingering southern charm to this place, which is more than the comparable suburban sprawls next to New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles would have. The county was named after Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Here at least is a vestige of community tradition. No, for our purposes, Gwinnett County is an idea which can apply to any number of places. This is the idea of a community which is no community - an “anti-community”, if you will. In the forces which have transformed Gwinnett County from a sleepy rural backwater of the Old South into a soulless piece of suburban real estate one can recognize trends which are reshaping American society as a whole in this post-industrial age.

(From a book, Punchdrunk Man Reader, by Chester Mack (Thistlerose Publications, 1988)


Loneliness, Connectedness, and Social Stratification

        Every large city or adjoining suburban area includes “neighborhoods” which consist mainly of condos and apartment buildings. While life in such places may include lavish physical surroundings, it can also be quite lonely. In Ramsey County, Minnesota, a high-school teacher who had spent almost a year in an apartment complex commented upon the irony that “in a spatial sense I am far closer to my neighbors here than I was in the house from which I moved; but in every important sense we we are separated here by a vast gulf of detachment.”

“Before moving to (apartment) Number Three,” he explained, “I lived in a house that was part of a neighborhood. In an unobtrusive way the people there were part of one another’s lives. We helped each other move furniture and shovel walks and unclog drains and celebrate graduation and mourn deaths. All in all we promoted a sense of continuity, and of what has come to be called ‘connectedness’ with something larger than the self. It goes without saying that here in the apartment complex we don’t mingle in one another’s lives. We don’t celebrate each other’s joys or mourn each other’s losses, although we must all have both. If a walk needs shoveling or a drain is clogged, we call someone named Maintenance. If we need a cup of sugar, we don’t go to each other; we drive two to three miles to the store. That’s how it is at Number Three. That’s why I’ll not be sorry to move on soon.”

An immigrant from Poland once told me that in that nation communities are often formed from the personal networks needed to conduct black-market activities. Someone who wants to buy an electronic gadget, for instance, cannot simply pick one up at a store. The stores have a more limited selection of products than what many customers want. To obtain consumer luxuries, it is necessary to know someone, who knows someone else, and so forth, until the chain of persona contacts reaches a person who can supply the desired product. From a certain standpoint, then, the inconvenience of obtaining such goods in socialist countries can become a blessing in disguise.

Apart from the traffic in illegal drugs, we in the United States do not have that kind of community in connection with buying consumer products. Shopping is an important experience for most Americans, but the experience is tinged with personal meanings. People want to reward themselves for something, or they enjoy the visual fantasy of a spectacular shopping mall, or they imagine themselves getting bargains. In the big supermarkets, it is possible to whisk around by oneself with a shopping cart, find the items one wants, unload them on the check-out counter, hand the cashier the money shown on the cash register, and say not a word to anyone.

Such events have contributed to the making of an “anti-community”. This would be a society severely fragmented along economic and social lines. The suburbs have become self-contained islands of affluence having less and less to do with the cities from which they sprang. Well-educated, well-paid, white-collar workers have become more sharply differentiated from the kinds of people who work with their hands and the muscles of their body. People of different races and ages live in separate neighborhoods. Socioeconomic status defines affordable housing or the kind of place where a person would want to live. This is the product of a social system devoted not to community-building but to a life-long competition among individuals to rise to the top. Individual self-advancement - is that not what America is about?

It starts in the schools. Education could be a process of transmitting the community’s common culture to the next generation, so that a cultural bond is established between people in their formative years. Instead, all too often, the educational process has become a struggle to achieve good grades and other personal distinctions, which will propel one student to a subsequent successful career while another is left behind. This is the first phase in the process of social “cream separation”. People are separated from one another by differences in rank and position as they progress in their different career tracks.

The process continues after a person has graduated from school and embarked upon a career. The idea that a career is a “calling” or an opportunity to develop skill or expertise in a particular line of work is overshadowed by the competitive aspect of it. Everyone is trying to climb quickly to the top of the career ladder which exists in his or her field of employment. In the United States, the economic reward for belonging to top management in a corporation, professional firm, or other such organization is disproportionately large. U.S. corporations are known for their steep hierarchies of personnel, involving many layers of supervision. All this accentuates the division between the chiefs and Indians within the corporate structure, and weakens the sense of community.

The final stage in the career process would be retirement. First a person goes to school to get a better job. Then the job becomes a vehicle for obtaining better retirement benefits. Retirement is a kind of Last Judgment by which working people are assigned an economic Heaven or Hell. Some retirees receive truly generous support - big pensions on top of Social Security on top of ample accumulated savings. Others are forced to live on Social Security alone; and some do not even qualify for that. So the socioeconomic divisions among senior citizens are quite wide. The one group of affluent retirees winters in Hawaii, Florida, or Arizona, takes Caribbean cruises, and indulges in expensive hobbies. Another group is confined to life in urban high-rises, financially unable to do much more. The economic progress achieved or not achieved during one’s working years becomes a permanent condition.

(From a book, Punchdrunk Man Reader, by Chester Mack (Thistlerose Publications, 1988)


   Some Developments Contributing to this Trend

         During the 1980s, average working hours in the United States have grown longer and not shorter; certainly this is true of work hours contributed by the family unit. The denial of adequate leisure to people in their working years is destructive of community life. One reason we do not see as many people today chatting pleasantly with their neighbors over backyard fences is simply that working people often do not have the time to do much more than work. There are more single parents who have to combine a full-time job with a full-time responsibility to raise children and attend to household chores. There are fewer adult women financially free of the need to hold a paying job, who can volunteer for community work or socialize with other women in the neighborhood. there are, in some cases, fewer children. More families are breaking up. More people are living alone in apartments or rented rooms. One finds community mainly in places where one spends the bulk of one’s time.

One effect of the so-called “information age” is to hasten the trend toward impersonal routines of living. People leave messages on other people’s telephone-answering machines. Such devices allow calls to be screened more effectively. Human contacts can be limited to persons we choose to receive. Lacking intimate personal experiences, we can let electronic technology deliver a commercially prepared image of them into our homes. The personally expressive voices and faces of popular singers, for instance, will appear on the screen of a television set. we do not have to become involved with those persons beyond watching their image from a comfortable sofa. For some lonely souls, pornographic pictures or films can become a substitute for carnal relations with another person. The more adventurous singles can line up dates for themselves by advertising in newspapers. In this impersonal age, community exists largely through symbols created by the electronic entertainment industry; any good politician knows the value of plugging the local sports teams, and being endorsed by professional athletes with whom his constituents have become acquainted by way of television broadcasting.

As much as I have implied that large corporations and other employers operate in a way that destroys community, I must also admit that corporate life itself does involve participation in a community. There is certainly a social aspect to employment at such places. But now, in the 1980s, even this advantage appears to be in danger. As U.S. employers have become more cost conscious, they have trimmed operations and cut the size of support staff. Less profitable factories and mines have been closed down, creating ghost towns which bustling communities used to be. Middle managers, forced into retirement or laid off, have not been replaced. Such frills as company-sponsored picnics and softball teams have been curtailed. The push to improve employee productivity has meant less time to gossip with co-workers around the water cooler or even at a nearby desk. At once-mighty Bethlehem Steel, now riddled with layoffs at all levels, it is reported that “remaining managers seem almost in shock over how far the steelmaker has fallen. They roam darkened hallways at the company’s sleek black headquarters. With half the offices empty, there is talk of selling the building.”

(From a book, Punchdrunk Man Reader, by Chester Mack (Thistlerose Publications, 1988)



Meanwhile, in the Inner City 

       There used to be community life in the core cities. Eighty years ago, the city of Minneapolis was a vibrant place, home to more than a half million persons. Today, its population is 380,000. White flight to the suburbs, especially following race riots in the late 1960s, accounts for much of this decline. The trolley-car tracks were ripped up and sold for scrap in the 1950s by business interests connected with the mob. The ridership on street cars peaked in the 1920s. Public transit today carries far fewer passengers.

Gangs of violent youth make it dangerous to live in certain neighborhoods, especially those in north Minneapolis between Broadway and Dowling. Gun-toting gang members are engaged in a war with rival gangs to gain the upper hand and control the drug market. Calls to police to investigate suspicious activity are often ignored unless there is obvious violence. When the police arrest persons for criminal activity, prosecutors often fail to prosecute and judges fail to impose meaningful sentences. Prison space is scarce and there is a sentiment that young people engaging in criminal activity can be dealt with in more humane ways than by sentencing them to prison. Essentially, the policymakers wish not to acknowledge a problem which city residents know evidently exists.

Minneapolis politics are dominated by a network of neighborhood organizations which act as junior policymakers assisting the City Council. They act as gatekeepers to decide what kind of development they wish to have in their neighborhood. Paid staff organize regular committee meetings, producing a mountain of paperwork. The Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) has handed each neighborhood a certain portion of the revenues which used to go to the government on the theory that the local people could decide better how to spend this money than officials at city hall. Since previous city administrations overspent on deals with private developers, the current administration is strapped for cash. Local property taxes have skyrocketed in the past five years. In addition, the city administration is steadily increasing fines and fees. Police officers in squad cars are looking for speeders on the highways instead of gun-toting criminals.

A particular school of crime-fighting thought believes that neighborhood crime is caused by uncaring landlords who fill their apartment buildings with the criminally inclined. Therefore, the solution to crime is to apply pressure against these so-called “problem properties” and perhaps close them down. City housing inspectors are looking for code violations which will allow the city to punish the owners of these properties. A side benefit is that, if the city can put them out of business, opportunities exist for others to acquire their properties at a reduced price. Neighborhood organizations are full of individuals urging this kind of solution. Not coincidentally, the police assign certain officers to meet regularly with the neighborhood associations and block clubs on the basis of identifying the problem properties and bringing appropriate pressure to bear.

City politics is such that anyone with property is viewed as a potential abuser whose business may be exploiting others. If drug dealers hang out in front of certain convenience stores, the owners and managers of those stores must be encouraging this kind of illegal activity or, as one City Council member put it, “getting rich” from catering to the drug crowd. The police tend to view this as a problem that the business manager must address himself. The discussion of crime seldom focuses upon the individual criminals perhaps because such attention could be interpreted as exhibiting racial bias. In fact, when the mayor recently announced that the police would be targeting three violent gangs, the leaders of several churches in north Minneapolis denounced this move as racial profiling.

What we have, then, is a community deeply divided along racial and class lines. We have young men and women bred and raised in single-parent homes who look to other young people for companionship and a community which regards them as a surplus population. There are fewer programs for youth than in previous decades and the programs offer fewer direct services. Instead, the money goes to non-profit organizations staffed with college graduates who talk about the problems but do little themselves. Elsewhere, there are enclaves of prosperity in the city of Minneapolis where affluent youth hang out at coffee houses. Every neighborhood wants more of this type of clean business and fewer auto-repair shops or factories. In this post-industrial age, people expect jobs that require their literate skills.

Large business organizations milk the taxpayer for subsidies while bribing political activists by donating a certain portion of their profits (typically 5%) to charity. The charitable donations, in fact, fund staff positions with non-profit organizations which these activists can fill. And so, large businesses and their millionaire owners are quite popular in the city’s political culture while small businesses are prey to be stigmatized and destroyed. The news media are continually spreading this moralistic message.

In the past year, the county has imposed a new sales tax to help build a new stadium on the edge of downtown which will be home for the area’s professional baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, owned by a billionaire banker. In the same year, the state decided to fund a new stadium on campus for the University of Minnesota. The owner of the Minnesota Vikings, the state’s professional football stadium, wants taxpayer help in building a third stadium which will be used by his team. Chances are that he will get it. Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis is so strapped for cash that it is planning to close three of the regional libraries and curtail hours in the library system. The public-employment pensions are coming due.

This is what passes for community life in my own city of Minneapolis in the first decade of the 21st Century. In comparison, the lack of “community” in Gwinnett County, Georgia, in the late 1980s seems quite attractive. Perhaps this is punishment for my having passed judgment on that type of society in an earlier publication.


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