Community Perspective

This page written circa 31 January, 2000.

I imagined that I would overflow with incisive observations concerning Kay, myself, Sydney and life in general when I returned from Oz. To aid this process I ingested upon my return Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island", a summation of England before his leaving it after 20 years living there as an American, and "Notes from a Big Country", his summation of America upon his return... added grist for the mental mill. I find I am not overflowing. As the froth of thoughts subside, the distilled essence is actually small.

I recently asked my friend Peter why he chose to return to live in Sydney when he could presumably have stayed and become Californian some years ago. Uncharacteristically, I got a nebulous answer. I say "uncharacteristically" because of all the people with whom I have had meaningful conversations over the years, Peter is significant for having delivered the most memorable wisdom in the fewest encounters. I asked him the same question when he first returned over a decade ago, and I got an answer to the effect of him not liking how the USA spent his tax dollars. That answer did not convey any understanding either, but at least it was concrete.

This recent trip and Mr Bryson helped me recognise and articulate one attribute of a society important to me, and which varies enormously from place to place. It is a sense of community. Community is built up variously by the friendly feeling you get in a small or family-run store, the pleasure gained from walking amongst pleasant buildings, the atmosphere that surrounds old men talking in streetside cafes and children playing in a small park, the values that accompany a respect for history (that preserves what is quaint and charming), a freedom from desperate dependence upon automobile or unbroken employment, the handiness of cultural activities, the proximity of a better-off university, the intellectual and geographical customisation of media, habits that accompany broad education and global awareness, and much more. (If you think you can add to this definition, email me.)

Bryson portrays well the difference between the "new" English towns, with their ghastly architecture, failing traditional businesses and drab, depressing town centres that are dead by nightfall (I too have spent time trapped in some of those), and the healthy villages that have good hostelry, small shops, regular useful transport and beautiful countryside (I know Stroud in Gloucestershire and Woodbridge in East Anglia and they fit this model). This community is expensive, and England, having been pretty much rogered senseless during and since WW2, has lost it in many places. If I am to believe Bryson's portrayal, England continues to lose its glorious communities apace. However, like Peter, Bryson claims not to quite explicitly know why he left one country for the other.

Peter cited, as example of Uncle Sam spending his tax unwisely, all those years ago, the purchase of nuclear missiles. That did not gel with me: If they contributed to American supremacy it looks like dollars well invested, and if Reagan had faced Iraq he might have spent them. A better way to exemplify unwise spending might have been to pick a few purchases whose return was less important than the community that could have been retained via parks, village-style precincts, closer regulation of architectural aesthetics, public transport, etc.

America is infamous for its so-called "edge cities", towns centered around impersonal malls, constructed entirely without sidewalks, filled with cookie-cutter houses, and utterly automobile-dependent. These constitute what is regarded as home (and thus normal) for one third of Americans, claims Bryson, and if you believe that it is easier to accept another claim to the effect that the most popular recreational activity cited by Americans is shopping. This is a Brysonesque statistic---targeted more at humouring than educating, for surely shopping is merely a tool to support activities not an end in itself---but it does convey the paucity of recreational pleasure material that community-lovers would anticipate in the life of the edge-city-dweller.

The variation from community-spirited to antisepticly-capitalist is probably the same in England and America and Australia, and who knows how the fractions vary in each country. I am certain that, like Bryson, I value the community of the place where I live. Newtown beats Santa Rosa, but then Newtown beats Chatswood and San Francisco (if you know the right part of it) probably beats Santa Rosa. Some of the contributors to community are state- or country-wide, and some are very local. The only fixed asset particular to me is the friends I have in Sydney, but even without that it might prove easier for me to improve the community in which I am immersed to move from SR to Newt than to SF. A thought to be continued....

PS: Melissa indirectly adds some aspects of community to the definition above, which is intended to be a cumulative list of indicators:
The immediate connection between parents sharing children at a pleasant school or day care place, and that happy condition where you are a recognised, regular patron at local provisioners.

| Home | Back |