What is Your Community?

“Community”, when I was growing up, seemed to mean the place where you lived and the institutions that nurtured civic engagement. Community was a place, a location.

Now, according to Megan Garber in CityLab, the meaning of community has changed:

“For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define “community,” they’d very likely give you an answer that involved a physical location. One’s community derived from one’s place—one’s literal place—in the world: one’s school, one’s neighborhood, one’s town. In the 21st century, though, that primary notion of “community” has changed. The word as used today tends to involve something at once farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s identity. “A body of people or things viewed collectively,” the Oxford English Dictionary sums it up. Community, in this sense, is not merely something that one fits into; it is also something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery. It is based on shared circumstances, certainly, but offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is active rather than passive. The LGBTQ community. The Latino community. The intelligence community. The journalism community.”


I think this article is on to something. Later in the piece, there is this quote from author Bill Bishop:

It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.”

Right after reading the article I had breakfast with Laurie and Max, here from New York to visit their kids. Laurie and I grew up in Kearny, were friends from second grade through high school, and now see each other as often as we can as we live on opposite coasts. I raised the idea of community with her, and she had a different take on our childhood experience. She said she always felt a tribal identification, as one of the Jewish kids in a predominately Christian town. She was more connected to religious community — even though her family wasn’t terribly observant — than to being a Kearny kid.

Later that same day son Matt and I went to sushi lunch, and we talked about community. For him, it’s a both/and. Seattle is his community, and family/friends, professional colleagues and associates, neighbors constitute his community too. He thinks community is less tied to the place/tribal distinction made in the article, and more tied to stage in life. When you own a home and pay taxes, you care about zoning, green space, transportation, and the aging sewer systems in the place where you live. When you have kids in schools, you care about school levies and the quality of educational options. That ties you to a particular physical location. But your community is also the people who contribute to making your life whole, and they may be anywhere in the world.

I haven’t really thought about this before, but am moved to now — and this post is more my thinking in process rather than a finished piece. I think I’d initially describe my community in social terms: family and close friends, the Panama clan, the people I’ve known and loved over the years that I now see infrequently but still care deeply about. I’m not sure I’ve ever been much attached to place, other than the Jersey shore, and certainly not to Kearny.

How would you describe community in your life? Is it a place, a physical location, a set of institutions? Or is it something more tribal, one or more groups with whom you identify? Or a blend of both?

4 thoughts on “What is Your Community?

  1. Fascinating topic/word with so many meanings and levels of meaning. I do think, as Matt, that one’s personal community shifts with one’s circumstances, interests, and needs. And the word is often used simply to denote a grouping. But I’m not sure that’s really enough. Good subject for thought.

  2. for Jeannie: It is an interesting topic, and complex. I’ve always been aware that I have somewhat less of an attachment to physical location than others — maybe because we moved so much as kids, although, with one exception, within the town of Kearny. But community, however defined, is important to me. I agree — a topic ripe for more thought.

  3. I’ve thought about this issue over the past 24 hrs. I think longevity in a place – as long as it has all the connecting factors – can contribute to a sense of community, My small town/rural growing up place was as described – all the supportive institutions were there along with multi-generations of relatives and neighbors. Ever since, my community has been broader, with friends and memorable moments in many places. The one other stage in my life where “place” was important was Rochester. We lived there for over 30 years. Neighbors and friends as well as the universities, museums, festivals, city parks, and the public market became important parts of our community. We were involved with organizations and causes. I realize that you can live in a place for 30 years and NOT feel a sense of community, or it can happen more quickly, but having the luxury of time to develop and nurture connections was something I treasured.

  4. for Phyllis: I’ve always thought of you and Art as very strong community people — and your work lives directly affected the well being of the community, not just your personal lives. It is an interesting question. You clearly have community in your new home, albeit perhaps in a way that’s different from your 30 years in Rochester.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.