Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bowl Alone, Die Alone

It’s been a bit of a strange few days since the end of the old year and the beginning of the new-- being homebound because of an illness, watching our government turn itself inside out over a fiscal crisis, considering the usual constellation of resolutions to make myself a better person in the year to come.  A reflective period, as it were.

I read Eric Klineberg’s article, “Adaptation,” in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, subtitled “How can cities be ‘climate-proofed’?” In addition to the engineering and technological ‘fixes’ he reviews in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Klineberg describes the mortality rate among different neighborhoods in the 1995 summer heat wave that savaged Chicago and killed 739 people.

Subsequent studies showed that mortality was consistent with Chicago’s demographics of segregation and inequality: eight of 10 areas with the highest death rates were African-American, characterized by concentrated poverty and violent crime. But: three of the 10 neighborhoods with the lowest heat-wave death rates were also poor, violent and predominantly African-American. The difference, in part, was people living more as a community in one, looking out for each other.

Building community ties so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them can become a low-cost tactic applicable to natural disaster and climate-change survival strategies.

In the ‘70s, I lived on an island where we did know, for better or worse, a lot more about each other’s lives. We sat around in the long, dark winter nights fantasizing about how we would survive if the military-industrial society on the mainland were to collapse. It didn't and we tended to bicker a lot-- but we were pretty good about thinking about ourselves as a community and responded well when the occasion arose.

I'm now a townie and, more recently, I’d spent some time thinking about where my communities were heading after Robert Putnam wrote his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Writing at the turn of this century, Putnam found civic participation in organizations in decline. Using the example of bowling, Putnam describes how the number of people bowling has increased but the number of people bowling in leagues has decreased. Community, if it continues, will be bound together in a different way than by engagement in civil organizations.

Rather abstract for the first week of the new year— but here’s the test I put to myself about me in my neighborhood: If a major natural disaster were to occur, who would need help? What skills and resources do I have that would be of value to our neighborhood? What are the skills and resources— and needs— of this neighborhood? I know Nick and Leta, Jackie, Jason and Whitney, Phil and Cynthia, Steve, Brook, and Laura— but who are all those other people?

What would make us a community rather than a neighborhood? I don’t think I will volunteer to keep the survival rations for everyone in my garage but it would at least help, as a first step, to know who folks are— and for them to know who I am.

A good resolution for the new year. I may be bowling alone but I don’t want to die alone.

--Mike Sato

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