Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Essence of Community

Miss V was looking through some old graduate school papers. I came across a paper where I discussed this idea of "Community". Since it is an academic paper is is a huge departure from my usual blog writing style. Keep in mind 1) this was written in 2001, and 2) I was going through a militant phase (story for another day), so I can't say that I fully agree with my musings as a grad student. Also, keep in mind that I was a civil engineering student as an undergrad, so my writing style didn't mature until I got to grad school.

The Essence of Community

Over the years people have defined community in different ways. Some argue that a community is a group of people with similar interests, background, culture or a shared identity. Others view community as a group of people bound in the same geographical area. Understanding the definition of community is essential to community building, how we share our communities and how we interact with members of our community. Should we define a community as a regional identity to promote togetherness?

In City Making, by Gerald Frug, the discussion of community building begins with the avoidance of “otherness”. Frug offers examples of how a purified community defined as an acceptance of homogeneity and the rejection of otherness. In the purified group people can receive “culture” at their convenience. They can live and work with people like them and to experience otherness they can watch a play or attend an art gallery. Most suburbs can be defined as a purified community. Most of the people who are considered the “others” live in the central cities. This rejection of things that aren’t familiar creates a “we” versus “them” psyche that makes community building difficult.

Frug proposes three responses to this community segregation of the we-them concept. The first response is the psychological explanation. The natural human desire is to fit in with our surroundings. If someone doesn’t assimilate to this environment they are labeled an outsider, deviant, abnormal and strange. By isolating these others, a sense of solidarity and stability can be created. The second response Frug offers, is the sociology of the city. The city has been given the identity of being dirty, full of crime and the undesirables. This has been expressed through literature and art. Literature romanticizes the countryside while chastising the city. The final response Frug gives is the political factors in the creation of the we-them mentality. Even after segregation was deemed illegal in the Brown versus the Board of Education, the government still imposed involuntary segregation on people. When projects displaced residents, Black residents were sent to inner-city areas, while Whites from the same area where relocated to suburbs. This displacement perpetuated the Black ghetto. These three responses Frug gives, lays the foundation of his community-building plan.

Frug strongly suggests that it is the role of cities is to educate and train people to be able to interact with each other; train people to get along with people who are different from them. He believes that by functioning in this manner cities can create an openness, oneness and togetherness. “A city function of community building would be designed not only to lower the overall level of estrangement in America’s metropolitan areas, but also to begin to address the area’s problems” (Frug, 142). Is Frug idealistic in proposing this idea?

I believe integration has its positive impacts on the community of the city. As Frug points out it allows people to blend ideals and culture. However, without the training Frug suggests, integration can create tolerance of the others, but not necessarily acceptance. Having community programs and promoting diversity can create acceptance and understanding. It is the role of planners to foster this sense of community in the larger city sense by creating settings for people to be exposed to people that are different from themselves.

However, I also believe that integration is not always a good thing nor is it attainable. By encouraging people of different backgrounds to live among each other, the risk of transculturation occurs. This may not seem like a bad thing, however living in integrated communities the dominant culture may dilute the other cultures. Another reason integration is not always good it because some people want to live among people like them. It is not that they are not open to people different from them. They just prefer to live with people who share their values, beliefs and traditions.
I do not think that by integrating people and training them that a sense of community can be created. Regardless of how much people are trained, there will always be some reason to reject people. Even in homogeneous communities, there are people who are considered the “others”. If it is not race, then it is gender, or martial status, or economic status. It is unfortunate that in a capitalistic society like the US, the focus is on the individual. With the focus on the individual, they will always be ways to say some is different from us.

I understand the concept that Frug is trying to convey. It would be nice if as planners we could train people to get along and live together. However, Frug’s recommendation is somewhat idealistic. His vision would work if people were willing to focus on a group oneness as opposed to an individual attitude of you are not like me.

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