Communi-whaaaa?

April 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some things about growing up in a small town stay with you. The smell of dirt roads, the rush of tall grass, the aching openness of the sky. The well-worn walk from one best friend’s house to another. The yearly festivals packed with twangy, swinging folk music and greasy, home cooked food. The easy way people talk to you, knowing that you share the little details of daily experience.

San Francisco is different from most cities in that, as people say, it has a ‘small town feel’. It’s true – in contrast to the brusque streets of New York, San Francisco holds more spaciousness and warmth around social interactions than you might expect from a big city. As an exuberant diary entry from my first few weeks here raves, “Everyone lets you pet their dogs! Small children wave at you! Cool 20-somethings share their {food} in the park!” Bay Area folks are wonderfully social; I still get the warm fuzzies every time a Philz barista smiles genuinely at me, or each time I share a joke with the Muni bus driver. But after 3 years, I’ve learned the hard way that the difference between ‘small town feel’ and ‘small town for real’ is a huge one.

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To illustrate, let me share my experience as a member of what is affectionately known in our hippie-drenched metropolis as ‘the yoga community’. My initiation into this club began with a 6-month yoga teacher training, complimented by a stint working at a swanky studio, and topped by a characteristically adventurous foray into acroyoga. I made TONS of fast friends, especially through acro, probably because there’s nothing that gets you closer faster than falling off someone’s feet onto their chest or landing crotch-first on their face (it’s all about the spandex).

As a freshman city-dweller, being poured into this metaphorical friend soup felt wonderful at first. People in the yoga community are friendly, open-minded, and tend to jump to the platonic ‘I love you!’ stage very quickly. At the studio, my coworkers regularly added terms of endearment to everyday conversation. “Can you cover this shift for me, dear?” “Thanks, love.” “Oooh, cute pants, hon!” Don’t get me wrong, cuddle-talk does make the world feel a little more cozy. But I’ve found that the cozy feeling rarely blossoms into full-on friendships. People are busy, rent is high, and haggling to find time to hang outside of work often feels like a chore.

A similar thing has happened in other communities I’ve joined. In my first few months here, I joined several Meetups and various shared-interest Facebook groups based in the Bay Area (Shut Up and Write, SF Philosophy Group, 20-Somethings Friends and Fun, etc.). I also joined a mailing list called Johnny Funcheap, a sort of everyman’s calendar of free social events (parades, trivia nights, drag shows, you know the deal). Through these events, I’ve had a lot of fun exploring and occasionally have met some interesting folks. However, none of them have stuck. At most, my spurious connections tend to sputter out after 1 or 2 one-off meetings for coffee. I used to beat myself up for it – until I dug deeper into what it is about urban environments that causes such a lack of connectivity. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

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As much as we might like to think the nucleus of community is shared interest, it’s not. From an anthropological perspective, community starts with shared locality before anything else. But in a place as densely populated as SF, shared location ends up meaning less. Neighborhood associations do exist, but mostly to problem-solve issues and not just to hang. There’s no designated central convening place, and the general fear of reaching out too far blocks people from making connections with people they aren’t sure live in the neighborhood. When I have reached out – in the park or at the coffee shop on the corner – I’ve found to my chagrin that I often have little or nothing in common with even people my age who live nearby. Hence the tendency to lean toward groups where you already know you’ve got one thing in sync.

But while they do provide a nice refuge from the discomfort of the urban melting-pot, shared-interest groups are still limited. Even taking an activity and adding the word ‘community’ after it (hacker community, permaculture community, whatever) doesn’t make people gel… no matter how many meetings we schedule or parties we throw or events we attend. Because when it comes down to it, community is about what happens outside the main event.

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To me, community means seeing the same people every day. It means seeing them so much you get bored. When you have little else to do then you have to create things, or be awkward and then vulnerable, or talk through the weird aspects of life until you reach similar conclusions about what it’s all about. Unfortunately, with the constant slurry of events going on in a city like San Francisco, there’s no time to be bored. If you want to create boredom, or at least unscheduled common time, you have to choose each other. And that doesn’t always happen, perhaps simply because we are too afraid to take the risk.

The small town feel I’ve experienced in San Francisco does have something to do with kindness, the superficial behaviors of our everyday interactions. And in a city, there are a lot of tiny interactions, so the more of them feel kind and compassionate, the more its going to feel like a small town. But community – the thing that really makes a small town – has to do with love, and that can’t be made in a series of superficial interactions. Love needs hours of hang-out time. It needs space to include all our interests and non-interests. It needs come over and play video games even though I met you at an activist meeting and who knows if you even like them. Before that, any commitment we make can feel just a bit flimsy.

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So when people say SF has that ‘small town feel’, I agree, with the caveat that it’s just what it is – a feeling. I have yet to experience anything here matching small town reality. I’ve met some great friends, but my time with them is irregular and disjointed; my friendships seem to revolve uncomfortably around me instead of around each other. I want to change that by fostering connections that run deeper than just ‘We’re hanging out today’, or ‘I like this, and you do too’. Though the question of how we build community in the city also begs a broader question: how do we save community in a world that’s becoming increasingly isolated, even as population density rises?

Maybe this lack of what I know as community is part and parcel of city life, of modern life. Or maybe it’s actually here, just in a different form, hiding shyly between connections and only waiting to be drawn out. Either way, I’d rather be proactive than wait to be surprised. If I build it, will they come?

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