"I couldn't find anywhere else that gave me a sense of community...I used to go all the time. Too bad I haven't been there in years."
--Typical reaction to the news of the impending closing of The Bodhi Tree, the iconic West Hollywood bookstore
Alienation and rootlessness are so deeply ingrained in Angelenos' psyches -- partly because so many of us are transplants -- as to be almost a badge of honor. (Think Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West.)
But there's nothing cool about the isolating ripple effects of massive unemployment and the shuttering of hundreds of community-oriented government programs and non-profits. People who still have good jobs and homes get caught up in the dread, too. They cut back on social activities like entertainment, eating out and shopping, and inadvertently perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of hardship. Throw in long-term trends -- like ever-increasing traffic congestion; technologies like Facebook, Twitter and texting that discourage actual human contact and allow people to work at home; and the conversion of locally-owned shops to one-size-fits-all chain franchises -- and you've got a city where finding community is tougher than ever.
On the one hand, philosophers going back to Rousseau have argued that isolation is the basic human impulse -- we're born free and live our lives in the chains of social obligation and political oppression. On the other hand, common sense and convincing evidence tell us that we need to feel connected to something greater than ourselves and our families in order to be fully human. (See M. Scott Peck's The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, Roy Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, and Robert J. Putnam's book and website Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.)
In L.A., despite the obstacles, community may be literally right around the corner, especially if you start small. Say with a neighborhood email group.
Laurel Canyon, where I live, is a gloriously rustic part of town whose privacy-shielding hills and privacy-desiring souls can, at times, make you wonder if there are any actual humans living amongst the raccoons, owls and coyotes. But thanks to long-time resident and brand architect Richard Seireeni, some two-thirds of the area's households are connected via a collegial and helpful email group that's free, easy to access -- just check your email -- and all-inclusive.
Seireeni says, "I got involved [in 2003] because I thought I had been a selfish SOB in my youth and was looking for a way to give back to the community. The original plan was to automate Laurel Canyon Association membership and dues collection. We didn't get our act together on the dues collection, but the collection of emails found another purpose in organizing the community against inappropriate development. That's when the email list grew in leaps as different blocks became organized against specific, local development projects. It's evolved into a combination town crier, switchboard and bulletin board service. In an age when we barely know our next-door neighbor, the service has helped cement the community." (Speaking of next-door neighbors, my friend Sue discovered just yesterday that her next-door neighbor of thirty years had died thirty months ago, and neither she nor her neighbor across the street had had any idea!)
The economic crisis has contributed to "numerous random acts of kindness," according to Seireeni, such as a car service for older residents, beautification and cleanup projects and school drop-off volunteers. The group even helped save the life of Rosie, a very sick coyote: "Today at approx noon, we finally succeeded in bringing this girl in for the care she so desperately needed. We will send more pictures and details later but I wanted to share the good news with everyone who was involved or cared about Rosie. In case you didn't see the video of our pre-capture: http://www.vimeo.com/7259155."
Neighborhood email groups can also catalyze major health and safety projects. How many neighborhoods have well-structured earthquake or fire emergency plans? Very few, I'll bet.
These groups may be the best way to get your communal feet wet because they eliminate the natural reluctance to participate in more formal community or homeowner groups, with their attendant scheduling demands, politicking, socializing and dues-paying.
A survey of friends and acquaintances reveals that while several neighborhoods -- e.g. Nichols Canyon and Mt. Olympus -- have thriving groups like Laurel Canyon's, many others have moribund programs, or nothing at all. And, of course, there are lots of folks who are simply unaware of groups in their areas.
(This is the first in a series of posts about creating community in Los Angeles. Next up: Using email groups to create neighborhood emergency plans.)