Finding old-fashioned community
“The common complaints of our time—loneliness, loss of values and meaning, lack of personal fulfillment, emptiness, disillusionment, powerlessness, and fear—are all symptoms that reflect our loss of community.”
Kathleen Smith, Rebuilding Community in America
If you seek traditional community then flee the city, escape the suburb. The primary perverter of community is bureaucracy. After crime rates and school conditions, desire for strong community is the most common motivation of urban refugees. They are often unhappy with what they find.
Modern community includes non-geographic groups. I belong to a vibrant Internet community of individuals seeking or living country life. My rural upbringing instilled the sense that community is interdependence, giving and receiving service and support, reciprocal obligations and care. Taking it home, old-fashioned community seems possible only for those who live among each other. Taking it to the trees, complete community includes non-human residents because human well-being is affected and effected by all living things.
I am tempted to say that traditional communities have served their purpose, their day is gone, long live community—to say that old-fashioned community is found now only in “Mayberry RFD” reruns and Garrison Keillor’s imagination. But remnants of traditional community still exist in agricultural and mining areas far beyond a city commute.
City citizens tend to be liberal and sophisticated; rural folks tend to be conservative and predictable. In cities, diversity is a given; in small towns, sameness is extolled. You may find ruralites provincial, unimaginative, boring. Urbanites and ruralites often have a different take on environmentalism. You may find ruralites insensitive. Rural children may address you as ma’am or sir. Your youngsters may find this appalling.
Characteristics of strong community include high voter turnout, large PTAs, strong attendance at school games, fewer bureaucracies than service clubs, low taxes, clean streets, infrequent yard fences, and yes, large church parking lots. Other clues include food co-ops, volunteer fire departments, neighborhood taverns and stores. Sidewalk passersby meet your eyes, smile, say something pleasant. Merchants and bank tellers greet you by name. What you don’t see are parking meters, threatening signs, large law firms.
Community is strong in Pipestone, Minnesota (pop. 10,000) where one-third of high school students played in the band sent by townspeople to the 1994 Rose Parade. Community is dynamic in agriculturally-based Stephenville, Texas (16,000), home of Tarleton State University, three radio stations and two newspapers. Community is unique in Ashland, Oregon, (16,000) known since 1935 for its Shakespearean festival that draws 360,000 yearly attendees. Beware, tourist magnets strengthen local economies but impinge on residents’ lives. L.L. Bean and “Beansprouts” weekend shoppers overwhelm local conditions in Freeport, Maine (7,000).
My wife and I live in an Ozarks farming area. Our immediate community is a six-house neighborhood three miles wide. Our business is selling our book and we do heavy mailings so we are valued customers at our don’t-blink post office six miles away. For groceries and hardware we continue on to a town of 700, that populous because it is our county seat. Town dwellers comprise a typical no-secrets village community. The square around the courthouse presents the bank, hardware store, insurance office, doctor’s clinic and the Ford dealership. Within one block of the square is the supermarket, the feed store, the Chevrolet dealership. The “package store,” as liquor stores are discreetly called in the Bible Belt, is well away from downtown. On most Saturday nights you could safely stroll down the middle of Main street.
When I first arrived I was taken aback by friendly greetings on the street, strangers speaking my name. A bearded newcomer from California was instant news. The second time I appeared at the bank, the second time I went to collect developed photos at the drugstore, I was addressed by name.
Understand your needs before you seek community. Do you really want to live where you are always a newcomer, where your flaws are well known, where conformity is expected? Helen and Scott Nearing made every effort to become a vital part of their chosen Vermont community and failed. In Living the Good Life, they exasperated: “Every community demands conformity to its laws, expects the acceptance of its customs and folkways, and prefers to have none but native sons at its firesides.”
Understand a community before you subject yourself to it. Learn local focus. Places experiencing strong in-migration from cities often have two communities, old-timers and newcomers. Newcomers who purposefully left cities nearly always bring city mind-set with them, attitudes that amuse or irritate natives.
Please don’t buy into a community on the cheap. Resentment is strong from Washington to North Carolina toward newcomers who avoid community involvement. You buy house and land but you earn community. Work your way in. Use your eyes, ears and muscles at least ten times as much as your mouth and your money.
The biggest mistake urban-to-rural migrants make is moving to a community that is wrong for them and then wasting their time trying to change it. Consider carefully your desire for strong community and how open or closed you want it to be.
We are scarred by modern conditions and must work hard to leave wounds behind as we enter real community. Find yourself a fit and then tred gently into that good new life.