Talking Communities with Marc Dunkelman, author of “THE Vanishing Neighbor”



Kim: So what happened? How come we don’t know our neighbors anymore?

Marc: When you talk to people about community, they often rue its decline. We aren't as invested in community organizations like the PTA. We don't bowl in leagues or play in bridge tournaments like our grandparents did. Even our definition of neighborliness has changed: While the term once denoted that you would be likely to bring cookies to the family that moved in across the street, it now means that you give people space; if you hear a couple fighting through the wall, neighborliness now demands that you politely fail to mention anything when you see them in the hall. I think the big story here, however, isn't that we're less invested in community--it's that we're more invested in different sorts of relationships. When my grandfather left for work in the morning, it was rare he was in touch with my grandmother until he arrived home for dinner. By contrast, my wife and I are in touch all day long, texting, emailing, coordinating schedules, delivering sweet, sweet gifts to one another (not really), and more. At the same time, younger generations are much more heavily invested in relationships that are actually limited to a specific commonality. We know people on Twitter simply because they share our politics. We join online communities devoted to specific hobbies. Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets enable us to connect with types of people our grandparents could never have known--which in many ways is terrific. But because we only have so much time and attention, when we invest additional time in both more and less intimate relationships, we sacrifice opportunities to invest in those in between--namely neighbors and fellow PTA members and pals from our bowling league. Community hasn't disappeared so much as it's morphed.

Kim: What do you think will be the biggest downfall if we don’t foster our local communities?

Marc: The relationships that we are now choosing over our neighbors (middle ring)--namely more intimate (inner ring) and less intimate (outer ring) ties--are often with people who share our sensibilities. Middle ring relationships are more likely to offer you a window into how someone from a different background views the world. You already know what your parents think, most likely. And you may be of different races and genders and ages, but if you're interacting only about the Bears or Cubs, you're less likely to glean any new perspective on a different topic from your conversations. But if you see a long-time neighbor at Birch Road Cellar, you're more likely to fall into a conversation about something unexpected, or to learn something new, or to develop an appreciation for why they voted for the other candidate. That, to my view, is why American democracy has, though the years, worked fairly well: Our everyday relationships allowed us to sympathize with the other side of a tough issue more frequently, and that general sense of camaraderie opened the door for our elected representatives to govern through compromise. Absent those middle ring ties, our leaders are finding it much harder to collaborate with one another, particularly across the aisle. 

Kim: Should we all just cancel our Facebook and Instagram accounts now? Are our relationships with people doomed?

Marc: Nah. If it weren’t for Facebook you and I probably wouldn’t be having drinks right now after not seeing each other in five years! Everyone should just spend a little less time online and a little more time hanging out with people at Birch Road Cellar. It's a solution in a bottle.

Kim: One of the things we love to see at Birch Road Cellar is when members, who normally would never have talked to each other, end up deep in conversation over a shared bottle of wine (or two!). It happens so naturally at the club, how come it’s so hard for us to do that in other places?

Marc: There are two elements here. Motive and opportunity. The sorts of interactions you're talking about are inherently risky. What if it turns out the guy you're drinking with disagrees with you about a political issue? Or if the woman drinking Chianti across a table harbors some sort of prejudice. Or that the couple you've been talking to is really boring and you don't have a suave way of exiting the conversation? You don't want to get stuck or bored. You don't want to get angry or have words with someone you might see again. So in many cases, we choose to play it safe by sticking to more and less intimate ties. Your parents and siblings and children and best friends are going to love you no matter what--or so we should hope. The woman who shares your hobby online would never bring up an uncomfortable subject when you're trading tips. We choose not to invest in middle ring relationships because there's a downside if they don't go well. 

Kim: What would you like to see in our communities to help us stay connected?

Marc: Beyond Birch Road Cellar, there's no silver bullet. But there are bits and pieces that might contribute. Mandatory national service, for example. Social networks like Nextdoor connect people online to the strangers living nearby. Rekindling the tradition of neighborhood potlucks. Maybe most controversially, a move in educational curricula to encourage students to build "grit," which is a necessary pre-condition to developing a social tie to someone who holds a position you find objectionable. Without grit, it's hard to maintain that relationship with any real equanimity. 

Kim: Think we should bring Birch Road Cellar to Providence?

Marc: I'm thirsty just thinking about it. 

Kim: What’s in your glass?

Marc: What was left in the single-serving bottle of apple juice my daughter put in the fridge last week. Wait, no, a rye Manhattan. Well, one of the two--I'll let you guess which one.