Libraries, porches & a robust public life

by Kristin on June 10, 2011

in Love, family & community

This morning, Jason and I biked to the library (less than a mile from our house), greeting neighbors along the way—Kate working in her garden, Trent sitting on his porch drinking coffee, Joan and her daughter Olivia pulling out of their driveway.

We arrived soon after the library opened, so I was able to snag my favorite table in the quiet reading room—one of the tables along the row of large, arched windows (the marble sills are a perfect place to set my cup of coffee while I work). Not five minutes later I sighed at the arrival of the old man who’s notorious for snoozing in the library and clearing his throat every 30 seconds. He took off his hat, settled into a comfortable chair in the corner and got right down to his business.

I didn’t want to write on my computer this morning anyway, so I took my notebook out to the library’s spacious front porch to write and think and clear my head. From the porch, I can see the town going about its morning all around me. In many ways it looks like a classic, small Midwestern town, similar to my hometown in Michigan, and the town in Iowa where my mom spent her childhood.

But in this town, every day I am surrounded by people who are not like me. There are international families speaking languages I can’t identify, who have moved here to attend the university. There are farmers in their pickup trucks who have come into town for business from some outlying community. There are people of different races and socioeconomic levels, who came to this town from Chicago or St. Louis, hoping to make a better life in a place with less crime and better schools. It’s a small, Midwestern town with a beautiful sense of complexity.

The difference between a shared space & a shared life

The other day I saw this post about community, and was immediately drawn to it: “The Perfect City: What Does ‘Community’ Mean to You?” The subtitle really got me: “What borrowing sugar has to do with robust public life.”

In my mind, knowing your neighbors and feeling a deep connection to where you live has always had everything to do with living the good life, but I’ve never really analyzed why. I’ve simply always chosen my neighborhood first, and then my apartment or house next, even if it means having less house for my money, or bordering areas that have more issues with crime or noise.

The author of the post I referenced pretty much sums up how I feel about these issues, and what exactly about them is so intriguing to me:

I’m relentlessly fascinated by cities and what it is that transforms them from shared urban space into thriving, lively communities full of shared humanity, vision and aspiration….

Yes! What exactly is it that transforms cities and neighborhoods from shared space/geography to shared experiences, goals, and commitment to what’s best for all? At what point is a community transformed in the mind of an individual? And when does that transformation tip into something even bigger—something that everyone who moves into the neighborhood can instantly sense and buy into?

What does “community” mean to you?

The linchpin, of course, is not universal. But one way to begin getting a broad sense of it is to ask individuals this simple but powerful question: What does community mean to you?

For me, the simple snapshot of my morning does a pretty good job of illustrating my response:

- Being able to walk and bike to places like the library and food co-op.

- Knowing my neighbors by name and appreciating what they contribute to the neighborhood.

- Having public spaces that attract and are open to a broad range of people—some who are very similar to me and many who aren’t.

- Living life through a sense of “shared story”—a shared history with various reference points and traditions, and a shared sense of moving forward together, as a group rather than a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same place.

Does living in a community like this improve my quality of life? I absolutely believe it does (and so do almost all of the 20 or so people who responded to my informal Twitter survey yesterday). I also believe it makes the world a better place, and if we don’t begin to go out of our way to value and commit to our communities, a “robust public life” will become a thing of the past.

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  • Shawn Smucker

    What a great post, Kristin. I am so torn. I love going into the city, passing people on sidewalks and feeling the life that reverberates there. But I’m equally in love with my two acres of solitude in the country, where I am teaching my kids how to grow their own food and take care of chickens, where I can sit outside and not see another human being. Is community possible in geographical isolation?

  • Jennifer

    Oh, Kristin, how you toy with me and my emotions. Every time you write about your living decisions, every time you write about your sweet little town, every time I need a cake and think of that little bakery we visited, I am tempted to pack up the car and move to your land. Now, with the library? You are a wily devil, you are. Last night we went to a free concert at the quaint shopping district. We met up with our neighbors, and ran into old friends. I never wanted the night to end. I like the question you ask about what makes the bigger transformation. I don’t know that there’s an answer, because it’s different for everyone. And so, if the reasons are different, is it possible for the transformation to be complete or will it eventually break down in divisiveness?

    And Shawn, you’re too young to be a curmudgeonly hermit. I think the community you are establishing on your two acres is quite satisfying, no? And yes, even though you might be locationally isolated, you are still engaging in the world around you. You know I’d have answer, right?

  • Julie

    Love this post! To me it’s so important to be able to turn to someone next door in a pinch, especially when family is far away. I love waving to the same friendly faces every morning as I walk through the neighborhood, or chatting with the guy down the block who’s redoing his front yard. This summer, I have resolved to have a block party to further cement those relationships!

  • ed cyzewski

    Very true. We’re hoping to find some of that in our move to Columbus. We’ve had some great experiences in our small town while living in Connecticut. While living in the country in Vermont we had a really hard time not meeting people. When we move back to New England, we’ll probably aim to be a bit closer to town. Living in the country sounds fun and romantic, but I’ve found that I’ve really enjoyed living in town and have more people and things to do around.

  • The Modern Gal

    I think you have to feel a connection to your community to truly be rooted in it. Otherwise it’s just a place where you live. You create that connection by being in the midst of things, doing, being out and about, talking to people, sharing experiences. When I first lived in Knoxville I did not have this and didn’t really want to remain in Knoxville. Once I started getting out and doing things and exploring, I created a bond with the community. I now love it here.

  • Kristin T.

    Shawn, I think you’ve hit on something: there is a certain setting where we feel most at home—most ourselves—but that doesn’t mean we don’t love (and need!) a change of scene. I love camping and hiking in remote areas, and I love spending a few days in Chicago or New York, riding the subway or train, and navigating my way down crowded city sidewalks. At the end of the day, though, I think I live in the right place for me (and I suspect you do for you).

    Jennifer, you saw right through my not-so-sneaky ploys to convince you to move here! It is a very nice library. :) You ask an interesting question: “…if the reasons are different, is it possible for the transformation to be complete or will it eventually break down in divisiveness?” I think it’s possible, because it’s possible for two people to be fully enjoying the same space for different reasons. We can each draw what we need from the mix, and contribute what we have. (I’m such a romantic sometimes!)

    Julie, knowing that there are people there to help you and your kids, if you need it (whether it’s to stop by and feed the cat, lend a ladder or help with a bigger emergency), is a huge part of being connected to where you live. Even if you go months without actually asking for help, you know you could ask, and you would be happy to help them. That’s a lot of good will, and it makes a difference! (And yes—block parties are wonderful things!)

    ed, I’ve always thought living in the country sounds lovely, but I’ve also always known that I would never really embrace it. Just knowing I can always walk out of my house to a busy public space makes me feel content. I hope you find what you need in your new community!

    The Modern Gal, isn’t it interesting that we have so much power over whether or not we like a place? If we don’t like a place, it’s easy to blame it all on the place itself, but our decisions about how to engage make a big difference (I know, because the same thing happened to me when I first moved here). I’m glad you’ve created a bond with your community!