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.

Art Endures: So Does Social Infrastructure

The legendary Paul Simon is on a farewell tour. He visited South Florida for a final show at BB&T.

I’m at an age where my childhood heroes are— how can I be delicate– terming out so to speak.

It seems like every concert I attend these days is part of a “farewell tour” and I have some anxiety every time I hit the “obituary” link on my New York Times app.

Yet, I feel compelled to visit the link because I don’t want to miss the passing of people who meant something to me along the way.

Recent weeks have been especially difficult: we’ve lost Burt Reynolds, the wonderful Neil Simon, Aretha Franklin, John McCain and character actor Bill Daily—Major Healy on “I Dream of Jeanie” which was on every day in my house when my sister and I were growing up. In ways large and small, these people played roles in our culture and therefore our lives.

Politics are important, but politicians come and they go. They may leave a wake—policies may benefit  and they can certainly harm– but the cycles keep coming. But culture endures.

We attended the “farewell tour” for Paul Simon last weekend when it rolled into the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

He played new music and some songs that were 50 years old. They all sounded good, but the older songs still resonated, they were still relevant and they still rang true.

The final song of the night was “American Tune” which was written in 1973. The song is as meaningful today as it was 45 years ago.

“Still when I think of the road we’re traveling on I wonder what’s gone wrong. I can’t help it I wonder what’s gone wrong”.

In introducing the song, Mr. Simon spoke briefly, but his few words spoke volumes.

“Strange times,” he said drily. “Don’t give up.”

We won’t.

I know every generation thinks they have cornered the market on musical genius, but I think the Baby Boomers really did.

We grew up amidst an explosion of musical talent and their music has invaded our pores and informed our thoughts and views of life.

Don’t believe me?

Then consider: The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, U2, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Byrds, CCR, The Band, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Neil Young, Smokey Robinson, Dylan, The Dead, Elton John, Billy Joel, the Allman Brothers, The Kinks, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Earth Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and on and on she goes.

Oh I like new music too and seek it out regularly. But our golden age will be hard to match. The world has changed, there is no longer any water cooler, no multi-format radio stations that everyone listens to—we are tethered to our devices and our Spotify song lists. We have convenience and music on demand, but we have lost that common experience. Nobody is home at Graceland anymore.

We all knew what happened when “me and Julio” went down to the school yard and we surely knew what it was like to listen to “Dazed and Confused” while drinking warm beer with friends on a hot summer night. We have traded Budweiser with our buddies for earbuds and solitude. And it makes me a little sad and more than a little nostalgic….

Then, over the weekend, I read about a new term: “social infrastructure.”

I love it.

The author lamented the loss of “social infrastructure” in our cities—places like libraries, places like Old School Square and Patch Reef Park—“palaces for the people” is what the author Eric Klinenberg calls them. I love that phrase.

We ought to start thinking of our public spaces that way. It may be more important now than ever to tend to the commons before they go away and we physically meld with our cellphones and social media platforms. A new study released this week says that teenagers prefer to relate to their friends on their devices rather than in person. Think about that…it’s disturbing.

Regardless, this is a ramble. And I appreciate you reading this far.

From Major Healy to Old School Square we’ve covered some ground…but this drift was anticipated by the likes of Paul Simon when he sang (way back in 1967):

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Jolting Joe has left and gone away.”

Yes, he has.

I will miss this amazing array of talent we have enjoyed–as one by one they fade away. But their music…their sublime and transcendent music… will surely endure.