Monday, May 23, 2011

Community: Do you like yours?

Last night I had the great honor of hearing presentations by each of the MA in Urban Studies graduating students at our annual Research Forum. After the presentations had ended and I was driving home, my mind was on overload, to say the least. Over the next couple of months, I will be using the blog to highlight portions of these students' work, but for now, I will share one topic that has been churning in my mind: community. How does neighboring affect my view of community? Am I apart of a community of vulnerability? Each of these questions grew from two presentations at the Research Forum completed by Teagan Carnes and Rob Wetherington. I will not attempt to provide summaries of their work or give you a full-scope of their research findings, because I hope to provide this in future blogs. Instead, I will give you a taste of my stream of consciousness, as a result of work by these students.

How does neighboring affect my view of community? I grew up in a small rural agriculturally-based community in south central Pennsylvania. I find the assumptions of media and even those who reside in metropolitan areas about living in small farming communities very amusing, because I feel my experience those "Leave it to Beaver" type moments. In a popular country music song it says: Sitting on the porch drinking ice cold Cherry Coke...Where people pass by and you call them by their first name. Most Philadelphia natives, I have met, seem to picture my home community in the same terms as this song, that I knew everyone in town and would spend evenings with a tall glass of lemonade chatting with the neighbor. These are highly idealized views of rural America and were certainly not my experience. Instead, I did not know neighbors even in adjacent homes for most of my life. In fact, the gentleman living beside my parents today is still a stranger after seven years; we've never even said hello. My view of community instead reflected disconnection, and I thought it was normal not to have relationships with neighbors, until I left this community. There were and are no popular gathering places in the community, and the time I was at home, I literally was in my house. I lacked a connection and did not value the community in which I lived. Rob Wetherington talked about communities of isolation in his thesis presentation, which is an accurate description of my home community. To put it lightly, community was a geographical location for the majority of my life, and this reality made it very easy for me to leave once I turned eighteen.

Once I graduated college, my husband and I moved to the Beverly Hills section of Upper Darby. For those who are not familiar with the area, Upper Darby borders West Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek community. Upper Darby is a highly urbanized community, which demonstrates the elasticity of Philadelphia's urban borders. While Upper Darby was once an affluent community, it has experienced a large increase in drug activity and violence, in recent years, and even many locals considered the section in which I lived "rough." Moving into Upper Darby was not the experience I expected, after graduating from Eastern where I learned about real community. I assumed I would build relationships with my neighbors (especially being in a large apartment complex), baby sitting neighbor children, chumming it up in the stair well and spending time in local establishments. During the 11 months that my husband I lived in this community, we did not build one meaningful relationship with our neighbors. This was partly because many of the residents were transient, not staying long enough to really know, and partly because of feelings of safety. In the hallways of the apartment, there was a sense of tension when you would see a fellow resident that I cannot even explain, but I know was experienced by others just by observation. I rarely saw children in the hallways or outside, as there were no local parks and most days fights or altercations would happen on the street. There were no thriving restaurants or meeting places in the community considered "safe." Overall, I did not enjoy living in Upper Darby, feel safe there, or have a strong connection with the community, so at the first opportunity, my husband and I left. Teagan Carnes provided some insight into my experience in Upper Darby with her project examining variables impacting views of community and indicators of social transformation. She determined that the intimacy of relationships with neighbors positively impacted views of community. Given the lack of opportunity to have and intimacy in relationships with others, I better understand the level of general fear within the community.

Currently, my husband and I live in a small suburb of West Philadelphia, literally two miles from our former residency in Upper Darby, called Clifton Heights. Although considered a suburb, there are many of the same issues in Clifton Heights as in Philadelphia and Upper Darby with drugs and crime. What I find interesting is my sense of comfort and security in this community, despite the very visible presence of drug use and dealing along with vandalism and theft. I feel safer here than even the small rural community in which I grew up. The community is comprised of mostly people of Polish, Italian and Irish descent, but there is a changing demographic as there is increasing growth of the African American and Asian populations. There is a broad range of ages represented in the community as there is a large portion of young families with small children and an almost equally large portion of order citizens deeply rooted in the history of Clifton Heights. I think the most common denominator in the community is the class and income levels. All this is to say that I did not expect to find community here, as I knew many of my neighbors attribute neighborhood crime to the influx of racial diversity. Instead, I have found myself in a great place of opportunity to love my neighbors where they are and help them face the prejudices they hold.

Since moving into our house a year and a half ago, we have built strong relationships with all the neighbors living in adjacent houses, many whom have helped us in times of need. We also have growing relationships with dog owners in the community, since we adopted our dog last fall. My husband and I, together and apart, spend a great deal of time outside our home, walking and frequenting local businesses. Rob talked about communities of vulnerability where people practice full disclosure with one another. Although there is a lot of room for growth, I feel the amount of intimacy in conversations with my neighbors has great potential, as I have had discussions of faith and values, shared stories, and engaged some surprisingly open conversations with several neighbors. Potential also lies in the number of indicators of social transformation I see in my community, as most people feel safe, there is a number of recreation spaces with various corner parks, and there are meeting places where people often gather (especially in warm weather). Overall, I can say that my perception of community has changed since my last move, and I find great joy and pride in my community. I am very grateful for the research and conclusions drawn from both Teagan and Rob's theses, because I have gained new perspective and understanding.

How about you? How does neighboring affect your view of community? Are you apart of a community of vulnerability?

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