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What Happened to Our Sense of Community?

Two years ago, I moved into a 2-bedroom apartment on the second floor of an 8-story apartment building with 91 units in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC. I had never before lived in an apartment building. The closest I came was living in dormitories when I was in college and grad school, and in the Bachelor Officer Quarters when I was in the US Navy.

We have some serious problems in our building. The most serious is an “unruly tenant”, a large African American man with some obvious mental health problems. He has been placed in this building by the DC Government agencies that try to help residents with mental health, drug, and related problems. He is a “Section 8 voucher tenant”.

Section 8 is a Federal program that provides a “voucher” to very low-income people (the elderly and the disabled) so they can live in private sector housing. The voucher is a cash grant to the landlord for the difference between what the tenant is able to pay and the market rent for that unit. This is a deeply flawed program for a number of reasons, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.

Another serious problem in my building is package theft. We do not have concierge service in our building. Packages are mostly left on the floor in the first-floor corridor under the mailboxes for the tenants. They are clearly visible from the front door, and it is too easy for anybody to enter the building despite having a fob(electronic) key system. (Odd people walk in as tenants walk out.) The package theft has been blatant at times.

About six months after settling into The Sedgewick (at 1722 19th Street NW), I reactivated the dormant Sedgewick Tenants Association (STA). As a result, I became its Treasurer. The only other active members are the Vice President and Secretary. The elderly president resigned last month.

The STA has been successful by some measures. As many as 60 percent of the tenants have signed up for our listserv (email group), we have convened several tenant meetings, and last week we had a surprisingly positive meeting with a senior manager from the management company.

What is missing is the kind of “sense of community” that I enjoyed growing up in a New York City suburb in the 1950s/1960s and owning a row house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood from 1973 to 2019.

What is this sense of community? For me it has three key components. One is knowing your neighbors, by name. Another is feeling comfortable asking a neighbor for help or responding comfortably to a request for help from a neighbor. Anything from needing a cup of sugar to babysitting for a kid. The third component is participating in community activities like shoveling snow on the sidewalk or picking up trash in the alley.

In my lifetime, this sense of community seems to have slowly dissipated over the decades. It was palpable in my youth. It was vibrant in my first two decades as a homeowner in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. A steep decline began around 1990 that has continued with few exceptions until today when it is hard to see or feel any sense of community.

It’s easy to connect this loss of community to the divisiveness in America today. And it is not far-fetched to believe that a country with a strong sense of community is going to be a nicer country to live in than one without it.

What hit me a couple of days ago is that the internet might be the main reason why this sense of community has been vanishing in the USA (and possibly elsewhere in the world). In short, the internet has made it possible, even attractive to the point of becoming normal, to live in a virtual world of texts and videos with like-minded people.

Or maybe it’s wrong to say that the sense of community is vanishing. It’s only the old-fashioned kind of sense of community that I grew up with that is vanishing. The internet has created a different sense of community. Now people are creating their own individual communities of like-minded “friends”. Your community is not my community, even if you are living next door to me. A new sense of community is emerging where the benefits are confined to the members of each personal community and the rest of the world is largely ignored.

Robert Putnam wrote about this phenomenon in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000. For the first time I am seeing the effect of it in my daily life.


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