Still Bowling Alone

Bowling

Editor’s note: YourDelrayBoca is taking a week off after this post to travel. Our stops include St. Petersburg, New York City and the great city of Charleston S.C. where we will participate in the Urban Land Institute Riley Symposium honoring one of America’s truly great mayors, Joe Riley. We will be back with lots of material. Have a great week!

A few weeks ago, I attended a Bar Mitzvah in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.

The Bar Mitzvah boy was the son of a friend I have known since I was six years old. We went to elementary, junior high and high school together, went to each other’s Bar Mitzvah’s, took road trips to visit each other while in college, attended each other’s weddings and have remained friends through the years and the miles through middle age.

I know his family and he knows mine. We had the same teachers, the same friends and I remember his prom date. I have at least six other friends that I share a similar history with. Several also made the journey to Wisconsin to share an important  moment with a lifelong buddy.

When I share this story of friendship with others, I get two reactions: amazement and how nice that must be to have a shared history with so many other people.

I am very grateful for these friendships. The friendships came naturally in the beginning when we spent every day together playing ball, listening to music and talking about girls and what we might do when we grew up.

But over the years we have had to work hard to maintain our friendships. Time and distance, pressures and commitments can take a toll on old friendships. I’m proud that ours have survived endless moves, jobs, wives, kids, mortgages, the loss of loved ones and cancer.

In a way, working hard to stay in touch has made our friendships stronger.

There’s research out there that says that friendship is good for our mental, emotional and physical health. One study says people with close friends live longer than those who don’t have them. I believe it; we all want to hang around for the next chapter in the story.

I’ve been thinking about friendship and community building lately.

A few weeks back, I wrote about an old video we had discovered of Delray’s 1993 All America City bid and how the energy, camaraderie and closeness came through the screen when viewed.

We used to talk a whole lot about community building and citizen engagement in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, but it seems that the subject has fallen off of our radar screens of late. That’s a shame really. And a mistake.

Society has changed. Social media, texting, Snapchat and other tech tools can be wonderful, but they also seem to have replaced community.

In Delray, when we talk about being a “village” it’s often when we refer to the scale of development and the strong desire to have local businesses over chain stores. Those are important subjects, but how we work with, relate and treat each other is just as important, more so in my opinion.

In 2000, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam released a groundbreaking book called “Bowling Alone.”

His research showed that Americans were increasingly isolated; no longer joining civic clubs and bowling leagues which once served as ways to connect us to our neighbors and our communities.

Now a new study from Civic Observatory called “Less in Common” has taken up where Putnam left off and argues that restoring the civic commons will be critical if we are to solve some of society’s most pressing challenges.

The new study indicates that people trust their neighbors less and spend less time with them as a result.

The share of the population that says “most people can be trusted” has fallen from a majority in the 1970s, to about one-third today, according to the annual General Social Survey. Meanwhile, “In the 1970s, nearly 30 percent of Americans frequently spent time with neighbors, and only 20 percent had no interactions with them. Today, those proportions are reversed,” notes City Observatory.

Other trends noted:

Recreation is increasingly privatized. Since 1980, the number of members of private health clubs have quadrupled to more than 50 million.  “We used to swim together—prior to World War II, almost all pools were public” according to City Observatory. “Today, we swim alone in the 5 million or so private swimming pools compared to just a few thousand public ones.”

Economic segregation trends upward as middle-income neighborhoods decline. “Between 1970 and 2009 the proportion of families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent. Think about Delray Beach and Boca Raton which have lots of high end neighborhoods and some low income neighborhoods, but very little in the middle and virtual zero neighborhoods that have a mix of incomes.

Many live in gated communities. “By 1997 it was estimated that there were more than 20,000 gated community developments of 3,000 or more residents.”

Politically, America sorts itself into like-minded geographies. “Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of consistent conservatives and about half (49 percent) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.”

The biggest portion of our leisure time is spent watching television. “TV watching is up to 19 hours per week today compared to about 10 hours in the 1960s.”

Low-density, automobile-oriented living patterns are partly to blame, according to the report.

Still, there are encouraging counter trends.

Third places. “The number of coffee shops in the United States has nearly doubled in the past decade, from about 11,000 in 2003, to about 20,000 in 2012 (SBDC Network, 2012).”

 

Farmer’s Markets. “The number of Farmer’s markets in the U.S. has quadrupled in the past two decades to more than 8,000 nationally (Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA), 2013).”

 

Declining Racial Segregation. Overall, American neighborhoods have become demonstrably less segregated by race over the past half-century (Glaeser & Vigdor, 2012). I don’t think we can say that in our community.

 

Overall, notes report author Joe Cortright, “There is compelling evidence that the connective tissue that binds us together in cities is coming apart. As we’ve spent more time in isolation and less time socializing with our neighbors, participation in the civic commons has suffered. Rebuilding social capital in America will require innovative approaches to spur community engagement.”

To take a look at the full report visit http://cityobservatory.org/less-in-common/

So what does it all mean?

In Delray Beach, we have seen more expensive elections and less voter turnout despite a bigger population. Twenty five years ago Commissioner David Randolph received over 9,000 votes, today about a third of that many even vote and Delray is a far more populous place than a generation ago.

We are also seeing less civic involvement from a wider range of the community enabling smaller groups to claim the public square.

In Delray Beach, the beach area and Lake Ida neighborhoods are extremely active but wide swaths of the city are virtually never heard from. There was a time–not too long ago– when the lion’s share of the city’s voters resided west of Interstate 95. Communities such as Rainberry Bay, Pines of Delray, Del Aire, The Hamlet, Country Manors and High Point not only were politically active but were also active volunteers for police and fire and local schools. Leadership in these communities was regularly tapped for advice and support. Newly elected Delray Commissioner Mitch Katz recognized this gap and did a good job of communicating his desire to include the west in the recent municipal election.  But much work remains to be done to engage Andover, Rabbit Hollowe, Sabal Lakes and virtually the entire Linton area corridor.

Active and engaged Delray Beach has become a much smaller, eastern focused endeavor.

Less than a decade ago, when I was on the City Commission we were covered by three daily newspapers, a weekly newspaper, a local radio station, three TV stations and one or two magazines. Media coverage was once heavy, now it’s scant. The community water cooler is gone. And that makes a difference.

Beginning in the 80s and gaining steam through the mid 2000s, Delray made a huge effort to organize neighborhoods, host interactive town hall meetings, publish newsletters, use an emergency radio station with community news in three languages, host citizen driven visioning charrettes and resident academies all designed to engage and build community. Efforts were also made to talk about race relations and to create volunteer opportunities for those willing. Special events—the subject of lots of discussion today—also had a community building component when originally conceived. The entire All America City effort mentioned earlier was designed to foster community, build relationships and work collaboratively to solve community challenges. My favorite activities during my term in office were holiday parties hosted by the commission for city staff and neighborhood pot luck dinners.

During the former, we donned aprons and served lunch and punch to three shifts of city workers, getting to know them and giving us an opportunity to say thanks.

The pot luck dinners paired disparate neighborhoods in our city giving neighbors a chance to meet and find common ground. We learned that just about everybody has a desire to live on a safe street and to give their kids opportunities to succeed. Simple gestures, big results.

Today, in an age of “screens” and disruptive technology we should take the time to refocus on community. I think people long for it.

If we want to talk about building a sustainable village, a place of value, gratitude, respect, civility and warmth it has to start with people. The best part is these efforts aren’t expensive. It just takes time and genuine commitment.

If you restore and strengthen the civic commons you create a city of immeasurable value.

It all comes back to friendships and relationships—they benefit us personally, but they also benefit communities by—you guessed it— building community.

Just ask the cities that experienced unrest recently whether they wish they had invested more in community building and relationships.