In a consumer society, who do we look to for our needs?
We have neglected what can help us most: community.
Every weekend, The Sprawl sends out an email newsletter called Saturday Morning Sprawl. You can subscribe here. Here is this week's dispatch.
My recent conversation with David Goa about welcoming the stranger, and the "spiritual disaster" of the suburbs, has been simmering in my heart and mind this week.
But before I get further into that, let's go to the mailbag. Here's some of the feedback I got this week on recent stories (okay, these first two are texts from friends, and the third is a Twitter DM—but they are from friends that I trust, so I'm including them).
Re: "Welcoming the stranger as an act of delight," by Jeremy Klaszus, November 27
That was a helluva Sprawlcast, if you'll pardon the pun. Wow.
That last Sprawlcast was 🔥. I'm very much an atheist but your interviewing style and David Goa's way of communicating was thought provoking and so easy to listen to. Nice work!
Respectfully, The Sprawl has always seemed to have an anti-burbs bent (my opinion)... With the current piece, I’d argue the problem lies less in where you live, but with whom you associate, and that is not all determined by a map. Characterizing suburbanites as spiritually isolated is as much a broad brush generalization as typecasting inner-city living as a King of Kensington episode.
I’m not saying I disagree 100% with elements of the article, but feeling typecast all the same. I’ll re-read it again and maybe I’ll feel less strident about it.
P.S. Re-read it. I’m warming to elements of it.
Re: "Eyes on the Street—But at What Cost," by Ximena González, November 13
Thank you for yet another excellent and thoughtful article! The mighty neighbourly theme is so near and dear to my heart.
My partner and I believe strongly in the power of community. Both my workplaces centre around community building, care for environment and people. I work at a nonprofit, Arusha, and a worker cooperative, The Allium.
However, as renters, and with the busyness of life, with my partner’s kids, animal companions, work, chores, a hobby or two and trying to make space for keeping active and social... it’s easy to feel we don’t have extra time to build community in our own neighbourhood.
We both love to upcycle, reuse, repair and refurbish. So we were delighted when we discovered our neighbourhood (Charleswood) had a buy nothing group on Facebook.
The kind of community that is built is far kinder, inclusive and generous than what it sounds like the neighbourhood watch groups are unintentionally creating.
On the buy nothing group you can gift items or even extra food you don’t need, as well as ask for things you do. There are frequently people who mention how the group has helped them through a hard time. And there is a pretty funny running joke of using a banana as a size reference. It is very much in alignment with my work with Calgary Dollars at Arusha.
I don’t know how common the buy nothing groups are, but it would be amazing to see more groups like it! We may be moving in the next year, and I’m hoping that if we end up in a different community, that they have a buy nothing group too. Or, perhaps we’ll see if we can get a buy nothing or Calgary Dollars group started!
Sierra touches on something I've been thinking about this week. Who do we look to for meeting our needs? The people around us, or people we can pay for a product or service?
In our conversation, David Goa talked about how the economic systems of capitalism and communism, while radically different on the surface, have more or less the same narrow view of human beings: People exist to be fed, to consume. Capitalism expects the market to meet this need. Communism expects the state to meet this need.
But in each or these systems, where is the place of neighbourhood and human community? Where is the obligation of neighbours to each other? Where is there room for surprise and delight?
This week I started reading The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block. They posit that in a society that has transformed us from citizens into consumers, our communities are no longer competent in fulfilling the most basic human functions for us.
"A competent community provides a safety net for the care of a child, attention and relatedness for the vulnerable, the means for economic survival for the household, and many of the social tools that sustain health," they write. "...In a consumer society, these functions are removed from family and community and provided by the marketplace; they are designed to be purchased."
You can look around and see this everywhere.
Mental health is my therapist's problem to solve ("the privatization of community knowledge about human development"). When it snows on the sidewalk at my townhouse complex, it's the landscaping company's problem to solve (with goddamn leaf blowers!). When someone gets old in my neighbourhood and needs care, a professional caregiver will presumably take care of them. When someone can't pay rent or buy food, they might become a "client" of an agency intended to help them.
And so on.
In our society, there are systems and professionals for every "problem." Someone else will take care of it, or not. And if they don't, we can always critique the failure.
But where does that leave us?
When community becomes commercialized and care becomes professionalized, write McKnight and Block, "life is hollowed out."
"The greatest tragedy of the consumer life is that its practitioners do not see that the local community is abundant with the relationships that are the principal resource for rescuing themselves and their families from the failure, dependency, and isolation that are the results of a life as a consumer and client," they write.
"Their ships are sinking and they struggle to swim to safety, ignoring the life raft at their side."
I'd add that this is just as true in the inner city as it is in the far suburbs. Density alone does not solve the problem. If anything, it makes the situation more manifestly absurd. How can we live so close to each other, and yet so far apart?
I'm currently working on a Sprawlcast about a local community group that has been working to heal this seemingly-ubiquitous wound—not in the inner city, but on the far edges of the city.
I'm curious what I'll find, and I'm excited to share it with you.
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
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