Monday, June 28, 2010

Neighborhood Idolatry?

"People are discovering that satisfying possibilities for their lives are in the neighborhood, not in the marketplace."

John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community

One should never attach too much importance to a single sentence at the beginning of a book -- but this one is a doozy. The underlying suggestion breaths new life into an old-fashioned, frequently romantic, notion of neighborhood as the epicenter of life.

First, let's ponder the use of the term neighborhood, commonly understood as a piece of turf, geography or limited range -- where one spends a good amount of time, sends kids to school, shops, networks, becomes a citizen. Neighborhoods have been neglected and disinvested; rarely have their assets been acknowledged and built upon.

But there's the age-old problem of community -- not spatial, based more upon choice and affinity -- ethnic groups on-line networks, political perspectives, weak-tied social networks of friends and associates. We know range across broader geographies to pusue "satisfying possibilities."

Community and neighborhood are not the same, but overlap in important ways.

Second, dissing the markeplace seems misguided although it's hard not to in this day and age. What the authors may really be talking about is the "values" of exploitative market relations rather than the affinity relations of neighbohood or community. But let's get real about the marketplace-- we can't ignore it and we derive various satisfactions from it. For example, many people, across occupations and income groups, spend a lot of their lives in workplaces -- not all good and satisfying to be sure, but places of sustained community building, self help, citizenship, solidarity, etc.

On the other hand, many factors that undermine neighborhoods, or place, and produce hypermobility for families (moving constantly) are all about the marketplace with some public policy thrown in (or lack thereof) -- the insecurities and exploitative pratices it generates in terms of foreclosure, high cost services, and bad employment. The marketplace can't be ignored.

And the positives of marketplace -- voluntary transactions of value, choice, etc. And , along with public policy, markets are certainly one important mechanism for scaling innovation and good practices -- not just exploitation.

But let's be clear: We need to refashion and harness markets to help us build ecologically sound and prosperous and fair neighborhoods, communities, cities, and regions. I'm hoping the rest of the book takes on the challenge, without falling back on old models and romantic longings.

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