It Takes Leadership to Keep A Village

Last February, journalist Timothy P. Carney published a provocative book entitled “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.”

It’s a hard hitting book that examines whether the American dream is alive, on life support, or dead.

The conclusion: it’s alive in places like Chevy Chase Village, Maryland where the author lives and dead in places across America where the jobs have disappeared along with the social ties that bind us as Americans.

I’m reading the book and it’s riveting.

Mr. Carney is a well-known conservative writer and I’m decidedly not conservative—still it’s good to expose your mind to other perspectives, especially intelligent ones.

Carney’s hypothesis is that the American dream dies in places that lose their sense of community. When the ties that bind no longer apply—be they church, service organizations, sports leagues, book clubs, neighborhood associations etc.—pretty soon the dream dies with it.

Humans are not meant to be unmoored.

We are social creatures and we are fragile.

Things happen to us.

Accidents, job losses, debt, fires, violence, addiction.


We are vulnerable beings. We grow old and frail, or we are young and unable to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we get sick and sometimes we lose our jobs and fall on hard times.

That’s when we rely on our family, friends, jobs, church, synagogue, service club and neighbors to step in and cushion the pain.

But, Carney argues, those things are fraying in America these days– at least in many places hard hit by economic hardship.

I saw a recent stat that floored me—1 in 7 children in America are growing up in households where one or more parents suffer from addiction. That piece of information was part of a story on what social scientists are now calling “deaths from despair.” There’s actually a category describing those who die from suicide, opioid abuse and alcohol poisoning.

Despair sets in when you lose hope; when there does not seem to be a viable alternative to the pain that engulfs your life.

There are whole towns and regions in America that feel this way. Hence, the divide in this country.

Sometimes I feel like we don’t live in the real world here in South Florida.

Nobody blinks when a Ferrari roars past, nobody thinks it’s odd to see homes in the Lake Ida neighborhood sell for $2 million plus, we take investment for granted as if its business as usual that someone can drop $40 million for the Sundy House and $28 million for a few old buildings on Atlantic Avenue.

We ring our hands over the silliest things but you don’t have to travel very far in our All America City to see poverty. There are families who can’t afford school lunches for their kids. We are no strangers to substance abuse and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. We have homelessness and plenty of despair in our community.

Still, I wonder about our focus and priorities.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day I will sit back on my couch mindlessly watching some reality show trying to quiet my brain until 9 p.m. comes and I can crawl up to bed only to get up at 5 a.m. and do it all over again.

I have a good life, so that’s not a complaint. I’ve been fortunate, lucky even. And for that I am grateful.

But there are times when I take a look at social media and watch the armchair trolls duke it out on all things Delray and it makes me aware of how far we’ve strayed from the place I discovered by happenstance in 1987.

We were a poor city back then, with no reserves, a weak tax base, high crime, dangerous racial divisions, a dead downtown, distressed neighborhoods and……a ton of potential.

Rather than succumb to despair, the community worked together and put in place a plan to revitalize the city. We were circling the drain but we would not be flushed away.

It was something to watch and thrilling to write about and experience.

Reading Tim Carney’s book and his description of Chevy Chase Village reminded me of that long ago Delray.

Chevy Chase has a senior committee, a speaker series, neighborhood parties, a strong volunteer base and a resilient network of organizations that bind the community together. It’s hard to get tickets to the annual school Christmas concert because the whole town wants to go to see “their kids.”

The African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is a truism.

We talk often about being a village but I wonder if we truly know what it takes to act like one. Just what we are doing to make this a kinder, more inclusive place?

Usually discussions about being “village like” focuses on development and yes the quality, design and scale of development is very important.


But there is more.

A whole lot more.

Building and maintaining a sense of community requires commitment and a constant effort to engage stakeholders and seek ways to bring people together.

What does that look like?

It means we have strong faith communities, town hall meetings, charrettes, engaged non-profits, a vibrant arts scene, involvement in our schools, community projects we take pride in, active neighborhood associations and events that draw the community. We have public spaces that are inviting and a wide variety of activities. We also take care of our own when bad things happen—as they inevitably do.

It also means that when we disagree we can do so civilly. We can let go if we lose a vote or if things don’t go our way. We don’t beat people up because we can. We don’t disparage their character or question their motives just because we disagree on one or a hundred issues.

None of this of course is rocket science. But all of it takes an effort. It requires leadership—true leadership which is not a position or a title but how you treat people and how you serve.

It requires dedication and a rock solid commitment to be there for the long haul.

There was a time when local government led these community building efforts.

We had a Community Improvement Department that helped to form and strengthen neighborhood associations. That amazing department conducted Citizen Academies, sponsored neighborhood leaders to attend national conferences so they could come back and help Delray and worked with local schools.

The Commission hosted community pot luck dinners and city government worked closely with non-profits.

And it made a difference.

It felt like a village.

To break bread with neighbors, to literally draw the future at a visioning session, to volunteer for a favorite non-profit, to enjoy seeing friends and neighbors at a festival builds community. And the list of community building/trust building activities goes on and on.

It feel like home.

Kind of the opposite of Facebook.

To be sure, there are plenty of great efforts happening now—the Delray Beach Initiative, EJS Project, Old School Square, Roots and Wings, Knights of Pythagoras,  the wonderful work being done at the library, Historic Society and Milagro Center, the hard work being done by our Chamber of Commerce and much more.

But, I don’t know too many people who would argue that the public square isn’t more toxic than it used to be.

The impact of that toxicity limits the pool of people willing to serve in public office. Oh, they may serve on a board or two, but they stop short of running.

Not that the public square has ever been safe.  It has always required thick skin—I can show you more than a few bruises myself. But this looks and feels different.

It has become more personal.

If I were running today—I’d make this election about culture.

What kind of village do we want to live in?
It’s a fundamental and important choice and it goes way, way beyond the latest development project.

And more important than any other decision we can make. If we choose right, we can meet any challenge and seize any opportunity. Choose wrong and it will be a long, ugly slide. I’d argue that we’ve been on that slide for a long time now. It is time for a reset. Before we squander the lead that we worked so hard to achieve.


  1. It is a seirs of things that change a village. Work and jobs are key. My family came from a Village called Taftville Ct. A very french canadian village. My great grand father was Dr. Pratt. He was the town Dr. for 45 years.
    Many of my family were imployed at the Potima Mill. One of the largest textile mills in America. My family bought in the neighbor hood near the mill. Everyone had a good job. The community was strong.
    You had Norwich Free Acadamy as as wonderful highschool. My folks both lived there. They said it was a magical place to grow up.Though they would move to Westborough Mass for over 46 years, they would choose to be buried there.
    Then it happened. The Mill owners would move to Taiwan in 1960. Yep 1960. Overseas had started.
    The town was shocked. It was a massive blow to the community.
    Then is would start to slowly unravel. Over the next 40 years it would die. People would leave. Real Estate value would plumet. It was the change that no one thought would happen. Today it is slowly coming back. It will never be what it was.
    How many people know 1 in 4 children in America are hungry! How could that be? How many care? Come hit the “No Kid hungry ” button! Our society seems to be shifting to a “Me” , society. The government and some people are on a 5 years “Stock Holder Plan” That is how much can I get for me! No long term goals for our society. Who cares about climate change! I won’t be here. Who cares about growing a society for children! I won’t be here. Me, I do care. Many others do too. The trouble is our government is being run by people who do not. Civil disagreements have turned in hate. Tax dollars stolen by the wealthly, for the wealthy. We need education, and food for the children. Can we do it? A healthy society takes care of its people.

  2. My wife and I have been winter vacationing in Delray Beach since 2006. We finally bought a condo downtown, right off Atlantic Avenue. We just moved in two weeks ago. We love living downtown. Mr. Perlman thank you for your insightful and intelligent articles in “Your Delray Boca”. I thoroughly enjoy reading your provocative thoughts.

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