Neighborhoods, People, And Community
a book by Roger S. Ahlbrandt
(our site's book review)
Based on research such as neighborhood surveys, this study done in Pittsburgh on 5,896 residents shows what people felt like giving surveyors. But how much these answers correspond to true facts is impossible to tell—people tend to report what makes them look good.
Trying to determine the role of neighborhoods
In attempting to determine the role of neighborhoods in the lives of these residents, the following data was obtained:
- 56% had no kin in the neighborhood
- 75% say they have at least one friend in the neighborhood
- 45% say the person whom they visit most lives outside the neighborhood
- 70% say the person they rely on for emotional support lives outside the neighborhood
- 48% of these people’s most important emotional support relationships are nonkin
- over 50% say neighborhood activities are not important
- 83% belong to no neighborhood organization
- 65% participate in no other organizations in or near the neighborhood
- 20% of those who work do so in or near the neighborhood
Older respondents had more good friends living in the neighborhood, were more likely to rely upon neighborhood residents for emotional and social supports, and were less likely to turn to their kin than were younger individuals. This data is too weak to support any general conclusions about neighborhoods, except maybe in Pittsburgh, but even then one suspects that such a big city has a diverse selection of neighborhood types and one would not expect such tools as surveys to be very revealing or support firmly grounded generalities about anything.
Older respondents had more good friends living in the neighborhood
Although the authors attempt to squeeze many conclusions—which we don’t necessarily concur with—from this skimpy data set, we felt that the important things to learn about neighborhoods not only were not addressed in this study, but could not be addressed in this way. In fact, the most important realities about neighborhoods are precisely the type of material that would be either repressed or clouded with defense mechanisms to such a degree that surveys are exactly the wrong tool.
Surveys are exactly the wrong tool for getting valid results
Whereas the authors got a few valuable indications about whether important social contacts were in or out of people’s neighborhoods, more significant is whether neighborhoods are functional or dysfunctional as environments of close and/or meaningful social contacts, whether the real (not “perceived”) social needs of neighborhood residents were being met in their homes and/or neighborhoods, and whether the people in neighborhoods even have the potential to fill one another’s needs in this way. Were the neighbors even compatible enough to be of any real significance in one another’s lives? Or was the total randomness of the diversity of people in neighborhoods sufficient to preclude most potential and actual social contact of more than the most superficial and perfunctory type?
It would take in-depth therapy of people in a neighborhood to find out the truth
It would take people engaged in in-depth therapy of individuals in a neighborhood to find out the actual social truths of such a microcommunity. Anyone who has had in-depth psychological experiences with real human beings soon finds out that people who say they have lots of friends usually merely have lots of people that they know and whom they shoot the breeze with at work, in the stores where they shop, in churches, on the Internet, and in their neighborhoods. People use the word “friend” to include anyone with whom they act friendly or simply their Facebook friends. By this definition, nearly everyone is a social butterfly with tons of friends. Also, most of us watch lots of TV, and TV characters can keep us company, make us laugh, and stave off loneliness quite easily for many of us.
TV characters can keep us company, make us laugh, act like our friends
The psychologists would tell us that people are way too antisocial, lonely, and alienated for their own good. They’re too willing to procrastinate about being proactive in social matters, and only too willing to retreat to the safety and security of vicarious, one-way relationships with virtual friends—note the great popularity of TV shows like Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, and other shows full of attractive virtual friends. And note the popularity of Internet chat-rooms, where you can pretend to be whomever you or someone else wants you to be—you don’t have to commit to a solid identity, or confront anyone, or see anyone, or touch anyone, or take real risks. These phenomena say more about the absence of compatible friends with similar interests in people’s lives than they say about people’s great love for TV or the typing of words of dubious sincerity back and forth with people doing same.
The sociologists would tell us that much unhappiness, abuse of substances and people, and inadequate parenting stems from social disconnectedness, isolation, friendlessness, and the lack of the courage to risk relationship, connection and commitment. Many of the social symptoms we see around us germinated from situations in which there were mothers trying to raise babies, toddlers, and kids without the benefit of social resources, alternate caregivers, respite, and close-knit social connections with which to share the experience and make it more natural (and more like mothers have done it for many thousands of years) and less cumbersome and overwhelming.
Mother trying to raise babies without any social resources, alternate caregivers, or respite
These same sociologists would also tell us that community responsibility is being dumped by the wayside as people are more and more simply out for Number One; and this not only results in community symptoms but in political ones as people are no longer participating in democracy—they’re hoping someone else will do it for them, because they’re too busy. Democracy and, eventually, national stability is degrading as social and community cohesiveness deteriorates. Quality of life suffers as well.
What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped
Richard Louv—the best living writer on the subject of neighborhood viability as it connects to the healthy upbringing of children—tells us that the fabric of childhood experience is tearing apart, and that we are letting the web of family life and community connectedness disintegrate and this is seriously harming our kids’ futures. We need to reweave the web of social connectedness, including the web that used to be so important in neighborhoods before the failed experiment of isolated nuclear families took over and got us all cocooning, hiding, trembling in fear behind locked doors, running off to walled enclaves and avoiding the social and community responsibility and connectedness that we once knew.
Many people are running off to walled enclaves and avoiding the social and community responsibility and connectedness that we once knew
We're all cocooning, hiding, trembling in fear behind locked doors, running off to walled enclaves
This, then, is the crux of the matter: neighborhoods are a critical element (especially for our children) in the social web that is so vital to the interests of democracy and community, but neighborhoods no longer are viable or even seen as important. They are simply houses that exist in proximity to our own, filled with—who knows who doing who knows what? What’s important about neighborhoods is that we somehow find a way to make them work again.