I was raised in a small x-burb of a smallish city in Ohio. We lived in one of those unimaginative tract developments laid out with a t-square in what once was farmland. There was one main street with side streets laid at right angles, all ending on a narrow dirt track that ran parallel along a forlorn strip of woods at the end of the side roads. To the north was Lake Erie, to the south were fields. In the early days, it was a place of young families, stay-at-home-moms, carpooling, and bridge players. Everyone was in the same boat and kids ran around freely with neighborly supervision. Mothers came out at dinner time and called you in. And, depending on the season, you hightailed it in with frozen fingers and toes, or you dragged your feet, scratched a trail behind you with a stick, and did just about anything but hurry. As we grew up, families sold and moved to areas with better school systems and the development suffered.
Many years and many moves later, I have ended up in upstate New York - not to be confused in any way with downstate - in a small village within a small town. This village in which I live has a lot of that same sense of community with which I grew up. While everyone knows your business, they also know when someone has hit hard times, due to illness, loss of work, or just bad luck. There are five churches in the town/village, and all congregations reach out to those who need them. There are movie nights for free family entertainment, clothing drives, a food pantry. When word gets out that a family has been struck by illness, there is a line of of local women bearing casseroles, cakes, roasts and side dishes at their front door. I am blessed with amazing friends and good neighbors. I really love it here. (Other than the fact that NY State is the top Nanny State, over-regulated, over-taxed, governed by idiots.)
Before I moved here, I lived in a small town just one county further south. I lived there for seven years and, in that time, I made one friend - Maggie, who I still cherish. And she lived in another town. No one helped each other. There were feuds and fights and nasty letters in the local paper. It has made me wonder what makes such a difference in small towns that are so close, geographically speaking.
The pre-here town (p-town) had a long history and had flourished with its mills and businesses back in the day. Now-town (n-town) has a long history and flourished with mills and businesses back in the day. Both lost most of their industries and have struggled for years. P-town is closer to The City, and now has a lot of full-time City residents - especially after 9-11. There is a big disparity between the wealthy cityfolks and poor townfolks. N-town also has its wealthy residents, but they tend to be artists and writers who like the anonymity of a very rural setting. We've got lots of "hollers" here - dirt roads that lead way back, up the mountains - and that is where they settle. From my non-scientific study, it seems that the biggest difference is that the families here tend to stick around for generations; it's not unusual for three or four generations to still be living within a mile of each other. Back in p-town, as soon as they're able, the young people skedaddle and don't look back. Another difference - and I may be way off here - is that n-town is basically a rural, farming community and there is an ingrained sense of dignity and the worth of hard work that infuses a lot of the families here. Of course, there are slackers and drunks and crooks, too, but they have very little impact on the solid sense of community of the place. P-town is more settled, with more affluent towns clustered around it. It just seemed angry and envious and petty. There was a pervading sense of resentment and entitlement. I was very glad to leave.
I am curious to know what you think makes a good sense of community. I've lived in small, medium and very large cities with the contrasting large, small, smaller sense of community in each. I am not a romantic when it comes to farms, farming and farmers. It's dirty, hard work and there is no time off for good behaviour. Is it this shared hardship that brings out that intimacy that seems to be shared in this little village?