Nothing gets people talking like a shared grievance. Misery, as everyone knows, loves company, and anyone who has ever been laid off or evicted, or even had to cut back on groceries has found quick solace in the similar complaints of their friends and neighbors. Stories of the run-down neighborhood that rose from the ashes when residents banded together to fight crime, or repair abandoned homes for resale, or convert empty lots into gardens are far from uncommon. Indeed, the hard-knock neighborhood lifting itself up through a communal sharing of the burden is an archetype of urban development.
There's a lot to be worried about these days. There's a lot to complain about. But we can believe that things are going to get better; in fact, it's doubtful that they can until we do.
The Project for Public Spaces published an article on their most recent newsletter entitled How Your Community Can Thrive-- Even in Tough Times, that made the blunt but wisely-worded case that cities, now more than ever, have to use what they've got. As financial markets collapse and leave perpetually cash-strapped city governments scraping by or knee-deep in red ink, expensive programs, high-profile redevelopments, and frivolous policies can no longer be relied upon to distract any attention from the most deeply-seated problems that face their communities. "What They've Got," for cities, is suddenly much less than it was.
Jonah Lehrer, speaking recently about the late Studs Terkel's book Hard Times, made this important point: "While a depression or steep recession is a terrible thing, it does lead to a few less Rolexes. And if the Terkel interviews are any indication, it was that diminished sense of disparity - the fact that everyone was going without - that made the time bearable." One thing that cities have got, today, is an economic mess on their hands; luckily, just about anything can be seen as an opportunity in the right light, and Lehrer's comments suggest a critical urban asset that should not be overlooked in these hard times: shared struggle.
A note to all those people who have been worrying about the collapse of traditional community structure in urban neighborhoods: now is your chance to change the course. It is somewhat rare that an economic crisis hits so hard that even the relatively wealthy are genuinely hurting; at the risk of sounding overly opportunistic, it is the depth of this recession that could provide a rare chance to get neighbors talking to neighbors, and sharing the burden of hard times in the community. As stated at the outset of this post, nothing gets people talking like a shared grievance. If awkwardness or ignorance have ever been reasons for avoiding a chat with the folks next door or down the hall, everyone now has something to talk about, to share, and to help each other with.
The effect that the current crash (we can call it that, right?) is having on our economic system will undoubtedly be extreme. The fundamental building blocks of our society will change, whether we like it or not. But if you're smart, you'll make what you can of hard times, and get to know what's going on in the lives of the people around you. When something shatters The Way Things Work like we're seeing them shattered today, there are small but invaluable shards of opportunity scattered all around. To some, it might look like a mess; to the wise, it is the start of a newer Way that will be stronger than what came before it.
(Photos from Wooster Collective and Flickr user Scott Haefner. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)