I saw a review some time ago for a book about American "ladies' clubs". Often derided in their day by knowing people as effete social clubs for the middle class, during the first centuries of the twentieth century these clubs played a major hand in the expansion of the library system throughout the country.
They also in some cases helped bring on prohibition, which did not work out quite so well.
I will glaze over for a moment my own gnarled personal politics about how much government should and should not do. I find that my own politics are just as useless as anyone else's in defining all situations for all purposes. Instead, I want to focus on what the things are that make a community.
I once met Sweet Alice Harris, who leads a group in Los Angeles called Parents of Watts. I write sometimes about how Los Angeles stereotypes often prove distorted, and sometimes prove frighteningly true. Well, the stereotype that Watts is an area beset with problems still is true. There are buildings which were destroyed by the Watts riots in the 1960s which have never been rebuilt, and in a few isolated instances, the husk of the burnt out buildings still exist. Watts folks fight poverty, drug use, crime, hopelessness, and the challenges of schools that consistently rank in the oneth percentile (i.e., the very bottom) when it comes to standardized scores.
As in so many Los Angeles neighborhoods, one can point to some event of urban decline. Watts was a working class community which grew prior to World War II, and grew a good bit during World War II. When that war ended, the massive defense expenditures lavished upon Los Angeles ended, sending Watts into a decline.
Watts became deeply impoverished.
In the 1960s, racial tensions boiled over, leading to the Watts riots. Watts has, in the intervening years, remained a challenged, impoverished neighborhood. Although outsider artist Simon Rodia built the Watts Towers, huge sculptures modeled on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, which are a tourist draw even today,
Watts is one of those gang-ridden neighborhoods one would never walk at night.
I met Sweet Alice Harris when I was doing a one-shot of helping with the donation of some furniture to the Parents of Watts. We talked a bit about blackberry cobbler, as we are both from the south. It was one of those few minute glancing talks with a stranger, but it made me curious about her work.
I became interested in Ms. Harris' work, and read a few articles about her. It turns out she's been at this for 35 years. Her story is one of those old-fashioned inspiration stories, but nonetheless interesting. When she was 16, she was homeless with two infant children. A woman gave her a job, and a garage apartment in which to live, when everyone else rejected her. That woman made a request of her, though--that Ms. Harris someday help somebody else in a similar situation. Sweet Alice Harris agreed, and has done so ever since.
I learned that what Ms. Harris does it try to get disadvantaged kids off the street and keep them in school. She tries to give them support, and keep them away from gangs. Parents of Watts has won awards, Ms. Harris has gotten state Woman of the Year prizes,
and Parents of Watts has successfully gotten kids off the streets and away from gangs.
I must admit that I am deeply intrigued by stories of community folks who work for their community and solve the problems at hand. I think it's so tempting to see community as something that happens outside one's own life--as a thing unto itself that saints or leaders do. But the more I look at life, the more I think that the big institutions are not very good at community. Community is a matter of individual effort by small groups of people.
I think that one need not be old-fashioned about what is community. LJ is obviously an incredible community. LJ offers the chance to make connections and compare notes with kindred spirits and diverse voices world-wide. But in RL, I find myself resisting the notion to wait for things to happen, and trying to steel myself to go out and do the things in my community to make itthe place I want to live. I live in a town in suburban, conservative Collin County, a sort of "Pleasant Valley Sunday" town, too large and new to be quite quaint, too small to have a huge infrastructure of arts or clubs. We do have a food pantry, and our county has a very good program for dealing with domestic violence. But in terms of both helping and "culture" (in the very low-tech, low cost sense), it's just not a "happening" place. My theory is that the building of infrastructure for a community is more than just "child abuse shelter here", "homeless house there", and "multi-million dollar arts center there". I think that building a community is about building interconnections among people. I grew up in a town that was very working class. But the community pulled together in some ways, and some--not all--social issues facing folks in the cities did not exist to speak of during my childhood. We could leave our keys in the cars at night, and for some part of my childhood, didn't have to really lock our doors. Drugs were not rampant, gangs were unheard of. It's not that we lived with some special grace from God; it's that a real "town" was there. It's not that we had state of the art charities--it's that a sense of community was present. How was it achieved? Churches, social clubs, school sports, folks who treated folks like people in public, a small town newspaper, small town events. I see the "frivolous" garden club and the meaningful charity as largely part of the same thing. In order for community to work, there's got to be common fabrics, and the common fabrics are centered in local people starting human activities.
Now my little town was far from ideal. In fact, racial division suggests that two communities, not one,really existed, although the case is arguable either way. Teen pregnancy remained an issue through my high school days, as insuffient attention was focused on keeping kids from getting pregnant and married at 18. But what worked? A fabric, a social fabric.
Lately I'm intrigued by ways to build that fabric. I don't want to start a garden club, as that's not me (I want to start a blitz chess club). I think that what people like Sweet Alice Harris and those 1910s women without full equality but with a progressive zeal taught me is that each generation must invent community, and that waiting for the government or the church or somebody to do it doesn't really work. I don't have any grand pronouncements that I will do some worthwhile thing, but I am beginning to realize that I must be part of the equation, and not an observer only. We have a nation that has many good points, but some really tragic flaws.
I don't think that the solution is going to come from standing in the streets shouting about the flaws--but from building a just and decent community, one club and one library at a time.