The case for community

Robert Putnam coined the term “social capital” in a seminal essay written in 1995. He’d later expand those ideas about community into a full-length book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in 2000.

Putnam’s book and his ideas have infused my own thinking about the world since reading the book in 2002. In 2005, I tackled writing a book of my own, one that drew liberally upon the concept of social capital, using baseball rather than bowling as the metaphor for the changes American communities have experienced over the last 50-60 years.

Social capital—as defined by Putnam—refers to the “collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.” He would argue that social capital is a necessary component for building and maintaining democracy.  Others, like Alexis de Tocqueville (writing in the 1800s) and Jane Jacobs, prior to Putnam, touched on this framework—what I’d describe as the “glue” that holds society together.

Putnam makes his case that social capital began declining in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The trajectory has been a downward one since. Examples can be seen in the loss of trust in government, and the decline of civic participation. Putnam wrote that television and urban sprawl have played significant roles in the loss of connectivity among Americans. We live alone, in suburban housing arrangements that tend to distance us from each other, while filling our free time with activities that promote separation, rather than the togetherness of community.

My previous post about Ben Hewitt and his visit to Bowdoin was framed broadly by the social capital theme. During one segment of his talk Thursday night, he listed what he called, “Lies, expectations, policy & big fat lies,” about food and one of the things he mentioned—people saying, “I’m too busy to cook (and prepare) healthy food.” He mentioned the 34 hours Americans spend each week watching television; the number goes up to 52 hours when you include the time they spend with digital devices like computers. That’s like working a second job, but the hours provide little benefit, at least Hewitt would make that argument, as would Putnam, and others; I would also.

When I listen to Ben Hewitt, read and think about Robert Putnam, I can’t help but think about Wendell Berry, a writer and farmer who is now drawing near 80. He’s written extensively about the practical aspects of community and how modern technology has played a major role in its demise.

Yesterday, I attended Homecoming at my high school alma mater, Lisbon High School. At the behest of my sister, who also writes and blogs about many similar themes of community and what community could look like again, I went to the football game on Saturday afternoon. I donned my old state championship baseball jacket.

While I only live across the river, it’s been five years (I think) since I last attended a Lisbon football game. My sister, who lives and works on the Seacoast in New Hampshire, returns regularly on weekends to the town we both grew up in.

It is Lisbon Falls that forms the basis of my understanding of community and what it used to be and could be again. It’s not an academic concept, but a living, breathing place where people all know one another and while the Lisbon Falls (along with Lisbon Center and the Lisbon Village) I grew up in wasn’t perfect, it was a place that epitomized the connectivity representative of Putnam’s definition of social capital.

Homecoming was fun; Lisbon lost 21-14 to Oak Hill, but for me, the game was more about seeing some old friends, people from my past, a past that is still important enough to me that I want to maintain a connection to it. Whenever I attend a Lisbon athletic event, I always see Aline Strout, taking money at the gate, or working the concession stand. For as long as I remember, Aline has been modeling what community looks, like volunteering for the Greyhound Boosters. There are many others that I know in Lisbon that give back. She learned this from others that have come before and set the standard.

I left the football game, dropped my sister and father off on Woodland Avenue and because I found out about it via Twitter that morning, headed to Brunswick to catch a set of music by Sara Cox, at Singing for their Supper, promoted by WCLZ 98.9, benefiting the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.

This hunger prevention effort serves close to 1,200 residents of the towns of Brunswick, Topsham, Lisbon, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, and Harpswell. They serve 32,000 meals a year. The number of people being served this year has increased by 11 percent, so people are still hurting during tough economic times.

Sara Cox played an hour-long set outside, in the drizzle. It was cold and damp, but about 75 people showed, a mix of young and old; Cox meanwhile, busked on the sidewalk beside First Parish Church. Numerous people tossed money in Sara’s guitar case. I heard late in the day that more than $10,000 had been raised during this two-day event.

My point in mentioning this is that after standing in the cold and rain, I wanted to head for home after the football game. At the same time, I’m a fan of Sara Cox, and I wanted to show my support for what ‘CLZ was doing in the community. I could have done an online donation, but it was important for me to be there, in person, supporting something I believe in.

It was a little thing, but restoring community is about small, individual acts that collectively can revive and infuse our communities again with social capital that I believe can also bring needed economic capital to towns struggling through hard times. Hewitt’s example of Hardwick, Vermont is a model for other communities.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Wendell Berry quotes. It captures succinctly what I’m trying to get at with this fumbling, clunky post.

One revived rural community could be the beginning of the renewal of our country. But to be authentic, this would have to be a revival accomplished mainly by the community itself. Done by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.”
—Wendell Berry