I sing the local community

We're losing local community--the foundation stone of social life.

Posted Aug 31, 2009

I'm in Haiti, staying in a gingerbread hotel build in the 1880s, with wide wooden verandas, wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans; all artifacts of a colonial world; all falling down. No hot water in my bathroom, bare hanging light bulbs above the bed, a dead room phone, one window boarded up, and no screens to discourage the healthy insect population: I have traded convenience for charm. And that's just the way I like it--for a more vibrant world has taken over Port--au-Prince. Voodoo symbols embroidered into sequined flags brighten the hotel corridors. African wooden carvings hang along the bar. And the superb aromas of conch in creole sauce and cocoanut pudding hang near the kitchen. Even more fascinating, beyond the high walls of this graceful decaying mansion, the streets seethe with the ills-and hopes--of humanity. Mounds of garbage stand three feet high, detouring the traffic. Dirt paths no wider than a doorway wind around the labyrinth of corrugated tin shacks. And entrepreneurs by the hundreds lounge and chatter along every dusty street. Women stroll with mounds of bananas (and god knows what else) on their heads; men pull carts the size of minivans laden with charcoal for cooking fires; people hawk clothing, auto parts, goats for slaughter, pots and pans, shoes and belts, rum and soft drinks.  Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere; some say the poorest in the world. Yet these handsome, struggling people have something precious that is vanishing from our more modern world: local community. From cradle to grave they know dozens, if not hundreds of people, and hundreds know them. They live in a web of deep local ties. You and I still live in communities, of course. The readers of Psychology Today are a community. I have a community of friends on the Internet, at Chemistry.com in Dallas, at Rutgers University and in New York City. But none of these people have ever seen the house where I grew up or known my father; indeed almost none have ever met one another. More and more of us live segmented, compartmentalized lives. This isn't natural. For millions of years, our forebears knew everyone around them and everyone knew them. These friends and relatives felt obliged to help with their children, listen to their woes and celebrate their achievements. People lived and died in a womb of local networks. I sing this local community. While many of us mourn the high divorce rate, I mourn the vanishing of this larger social unit-the foundation stone of human social life.