Community (Re)Construction

Day Two of our DiscoverEncounterDC experience was a bit more neighborhood-focused. We spent some time in Anacostia, which unlike the RFK region is actually a place where people live and have lived for generations; where RFK was stark and empty, Anacostia was bustling and alive. But also very economic challenged and impoverished: buildings in disrepair, people sitting on street corners, more graffiti and broken windows than we're used to in our small wealthy corner of the city.

The centerpiece of our trip, as it is the centerpiece of life in the neighborhood, is the city's long-term development plan for the area. According to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which is where we began our day, there is a 20-30 year vision for the area that involves a massive amount of rebuilding -- and of necessity also involves a massive amount of demolition and resettling of residents. The immanent move of the Washington Nationals to a new ballpark along the Anacostia River (the ballpark is scheduled to open in March 2008, and if it doesn't, there are likely to be massive lawsuits for breach of contract) has accelerated part of the plan, with the city now striving to find or construct adequate parking along the streets near the site, and also finalizing agreements with various businesses whose presence will help to create and solidify a local commercial district. And developers are also building new apartments, condos, and townhouses, all of which promise to being wealthier residents to the area and thus create a new, more financially viable area.

In my quick glance over the city's plans, and in reflecting on them as we went through our day, it seemed to me that (leaving aside the issues of gentrification, the displacement of long-time residents, and the destruction of existing communities -- including the DC gay community, members of which might not have lived in the area designated for the stadium, but which frequented the bars and clubs that have now been forced to move because of the city's use of its eminent domain powers) the planners have done a good job with one particular aspect of their vision, and a not-so-good job with another. The not-so-good aspect involves schools, an important part of any decision by parents (such as myself!) to relocate a family; regardless of other amenities, without good schools for my kids I'm not going to move. DC public schools are a mess, and when we combine that with the high cost of living in the area (which further militates against families moving in, except for those families living in public housing) we get a situation in which the new apartments and condos are likely to be occupied by childless professionals -- people who aren't likely to push for improvement in the local schools either. So you get a vicious cycle: bad schools -> no children moving in -> no pressure for schools to improve -> even worse schools. [Of course, extremely wealthy people may move in with children, but then send their children to private school programs -- different causal pathway, same observed effect.]

What's the solution? I have heard of development contracts under which builders and businesses have to agree to fund the rebuilding and enhancement of local schools, so maybe that's an option.

The other issue, the one that the planners appear to have done well (whether deliberately or not deliberately I have no idea) involves time and transportation. The most important thing for developing and sustaining a community, in the end, is time: the time that its members spend interacting with one another and thus, through use, revitalizing the common resources that make up the community's public cultural life. Just as a language is sustained and renewed by people speaking it, so a community is sustained and renewed by people engaging in its rituals and practices. [Indeed, "community" isn't really a noun; it's a verb, an active doing rather than a passive and static object. Ditto "state," and "nation," but those are issues for another time.] And if people don't have time, then they can't participate in those rituals and practices -- and the community might simply vanish.

So how do you give the members of a community more time to be together as a community? The simplest way to do this, I think, is to locate the places where people work close to the places where they live. If everyone is spending inordinate amounts of time commuting from home to work and back again, this diminishes the time for community in two ways: first, it means that people are not physically present as much, and when they get home after work they are likely to be too tired to engage in the rituals sustaining the community; and second, by placing people in their work lives someplace other than the place where they live, people's attention is of necessity split up, and it becomes quite likely that they will either be an active member of neither community (presuming that there are practices of community at both ends of their commute), or possibly that they will choose one over the other and thus further diminish one community.

The Anacostia development folks have done a nice job here because the two metro stops serving the neighborhood around the stadium (one on either side of the river) are about 10-15 minutes away from downtown DC, and less during rush hour. From my experience, 10-15 minutes is about as far as one (well, me, at least) can travel without getting into "commuter mode" and thus detaching from a community. You're still close enough to home that you can remain connected to it while working, and it's not hard to get home so there is a grater possibility for community rituals when you do get home. I can see that region populated by (childless) professional couples in a few years, creating and sustaining a community of their own while working downtown for the Empire.

The moral of the story is that one needs to live close to where one works if one wants to have viable communities at both ends. Ideally, such living-in-proximity would produce one community, in which people lived and worked and then recreated and socialized and so forth. But stretch out that transportation length too much and you end up squeezing hapless commuters enough that there aren't viable communities at either end.

Unfortunately, housing in northwest DC around the university is so expensive that my family and I have to live outside of the city entirely. Yesterday morning I went in for a brief 45-minute orientation session with some new students; the session was good, but I had to travel for over an hour to and from it. Many other faculty-members are in the same boat. Is it any wonder that I often feel that the campus community lacks a certain something -- and that that something involves active faculty participation? If the university were to construct some housing units for faculty, and make them available at something other than the ridiculous market rates that prevail in that part of town (a practice that other urban universities follow), imagine the impact on the campus community. Which just goes to prove my point that time is the most important resource that a community has: time for it to persist in the practices and rituals of its members. With time there can be community; without it, we are likely left with a disconnected collection of individuals.

No comments: