Hope and the city: the fine art of community-building

What is community, and how do we encourage it? However we answer those questions, I think most people would agree that it’s lacking in our culture, with its emphasis on the individual. Whether we live in cities, small towns, or suburbs, it’s increasingly rare for Americans to feel a real sense of community. It stands out to me out when I hear someone describe their neighborhood as a nurturing, close community; while such pockets exist, they are not the norm.

So last fall, I welcomed the chance to join the Rebuild Potrero Community-Building Group. Rebuild Potrero is a project to rebuild and revitalize the public housing known as Potrero Terrace and Annex as part of HOPE SF, an initiative to transform some of the most challenged public housing in San Francisco. A plan is being formed to rebuild Potrero Terrace and Annex in combination with mixed-income housing, green spaces, and community centers. Though people often resist change, and some neighbors have voiced concerns about this plan, most seem to agree that it’s well-conceived and almost certain to be a great improvement for both the public housing residents and the rest of the neighborhood.

In addition to involving residents and neighbors in the physical design by soliciting input through a series of neighborhood meetings, the Rebuild Potrero team wanted to promote community building as part of the HOPE SF mission. So residents and neighbors were recruited and brought together for what turned into monthly meetings, with the directive to help build community.

It’s been great to meet people from the neighborhood and actually interact with residents of the public housing; it’s right above the hill from our condo complex, yet the two groups don’t normally interact at all. However, the first meetings were chaotic; with people of widely disparate backgrounds and communication styles, it was hard to get focused, and our mission seemed vague. A professional community builder was hired, and eventually we picked a few areas to concentrate on, such as creating community gardens and conducting an oral history project. But I still had the uneasy feeling that we didn’t know what we were doing. The Rebuild Potrero people certainly had the best of intentions, and this included ensuring that the agenda came from the community, not from them. But without any direction, I wasn’t sure where we were going.

Others also expressed this feeling, so we decided to step back and assess what we were tying to do. One of our members with expertise in creating mission statements was recruited to help. We’re now going through an organized and well-thought-out process to arrive at our final mission statement, which I hope will help us focus our efforts. The concept of community-building seems broad and open to interpretation. Some in the group think we should stick to political action, such as working to stop power plants from being built in the vicinity of Potrero Hill. Others gravitate toward involving the neighborhood in communal art projects, such as painting colorful tiles. There’s a spectrum of possibilities. But what really creates community?

I don’t have the final answer, but I believe a key component is shared experiences. When neighbors borrow sugar from one another, drive one another to the doctor, share meals, that creates a sense of community. Meeting once a month with this group has made me feel just a bit more connected to my neighborhood; now we recognize one another when walking down the street and might even stop to chat now and then. But that’s the tiniest tip of a very large iceberg.

Building community is challenging in a context in which many people just aren’t interested or don’t feel they have the time. At our complex, for example, we’ve tried several times to invite our next-door neighbor to dinner. But he often works nights, and we never seem to find a good date. Another neighbor has said on more than one occasion that he and his partner would like to invite us for dinner—maybe in the next month or two, because they’re so busy right now. When it comes to bigger and less fun time commitments, like attending neighborhood or HOA meetings, only the most committed and interested find the time. Most people are just too busy keeping their lives together in our expensive and high-stress (though wonderful) city.

However, Potrero Hill is more of a neighborhood than many in San Francisco, and a number of people here do get involved. The hope, I suppose, is that every small effort will build on the others and eventually grow into something we can call a community. Even the physical design of the new development will contribute; it’s planned to look more like the rest of the neighborhood, to be more accessible to and from the surrounding areas, and to include spaces where people will want to gather. The building won’t start for a few years, so till then, we have time to build and grow our community as best we can.

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3 thoughts on “Hope and the city: the fine art of community-building

  1. What a great piece of wisdom! I do hope you achieve all your goals soon.

  2. Having recently returned from a retreat center that does an excellent job of building community, I’d say that doing something for the common good–helping others–goes a long way towards building a sense of community. You say the same thing when you note that borrowing a cup of sugar or driving a neighbor to the doctor creates community. There is also the distinct need for concrete and creative accomplishment, so any endeavors that involve tangible results, like a community garden, will probably build community faster than anything else. I look forward to hearing about Rebuild Potrero’s future.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shimi! Makes a lot of sense. Just this morning I was at an orientation for the GRID Alternatives solarthon at which they pointed out that this event helps build community in the areas where they hold it each year. It brings together neighbors who may never have talked to one another before, as the families getting the solar systems come out and help install them. So cool that this organization is promoting renewable energy (and energy efficiency) and helping low-income communities at the same time. That’s what George Lakoff would call a good strategic initiative.

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