Let’s Roll Up Our Sleeves To Rebuild Our Social Fabric

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Before moving to Waco, Texas, I lived in the Prospect Lefferts neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where I was fortunate to experience many ideal features of urban life. Several restaurants, bars, bodegas, and ordinary shops like dry cleaners and barber shops were walking distance from the small Tudor duplex I shared with three women. Prospect Park was a six-minute walk away and with just two trains coming to that part of town, it wasn’t overrun by tourists or commuters transferring to different lines. Most of the people getting off on my stop lived there, allowing it to feel like an actual neighborhood. 

Yet during my two years living there and despite close proximity to many fellow residents, I had very few opportunities to connect with my neighbors. I tried to meet them when I could, but it just wasn’t the same as participating in shared social practices designed to connect neighbors to each other. Despite the neighborhood’s many wonderful attributes, they didn’t add up to a sense that I was participating in a community

Proximity Without Connection

This paradox of proximity without community is a timeless, global challenge. But in the American context, it’s a unique problem precisely because we once figured out how to solve it. During his tour of the states in 1831, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects,” he wrote. “There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.” 

During the decades after the Civil War, Americans of their own accord and initiative established hundreds of mutual aid societies, fraternal associations, and benevolent groups. In their Forbes column, Yaron Brook and  Don Walkins provide some helpful numbers: 

“In 1910, in New York State, for instance, 151 private benevolent groups provided care for children, and 216 provided care for adults or adults with children. If you were homeless in Chicago in 1933, for example, you could find shelter at one of the city’s 614 YMCAs, or one of its 89 Salvation Army barracks, or one of its 75 Goodwill Industries dormitories.

After the Great Depression, this fraternal culture began to unravel and since then, most American neighborhoods have been afflicted by the puzzling paradox of being alone together. In his widely-acclaimed 2000 book Bowling Alone (based on this essay), Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam investigates how this happened, eventually settling on four main causes: generational differences, television, “sprawl,” and the pressures of time and money. 

14 years later, in his book, Vanishing Neighbor, Marc Dunkleman suggests that we haven’t really recovered from this unweaving. Referring to neighborhood-based relationships as second-ring relationships between the first ring (personal/intimate relationships) and third ring (impersonal relationships like social media), he writes: “What limited time and energy Americans have today is devoted to our most intimate relationships and a set of much more one-dimensional connections. Along the way, the middle rings have become the missing rings.” 

And in Happy City, Charles Montgomery beats a similar drum, establishing trust as a “bedrock” for a thriving city and neighborhood, but one that requires frequent and positive social interactions. Without them, “we are unlikely to build those bonds of trust.” He criticizes the suburban development pattern because of how intensely it reduces the frequency of organic, positive encounters between neighbors. Put simply, it’s hard to get to know your neighbors when you’re all shuttling between cars to garages and back doors to private homes, and back to cars. 

Taken together, these insights reveal the extent to which the social fabric woven around neighborhoods and cities during the “fraternal era” has become alarmingly frayed. When it comes to building resilient neighborhoods, reweaving this fabric is just as important as rewriting zoning laws, allowing for bike lanes, and embracing infill development. Civic, associative culture needs just as much innovating as these other aspects of city-building, but what exactly does that look like? 

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