A Spark of Life Confirms the Death of the Civic Experience

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“It’s not like we had 30 years of experience of doing this.”

And that’s the problem. In short, a St. Louis subdivision has no idea how to govern itself because it’s never had to. According to the story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, subdivision bylaws written in the 1970’s are so poor as to leave many questions unanswered. When an enterprising group of residents attempted to resolve issues such as whether the annual assessment increase should be capped at $25, civic chaos ensued. Residents then turned to the only means they know to resolve disputes: the courts.

While “Bowling Alone” brought the seeming importance of bowling leagues, voting, church attendence and our declining participation in each to the popular consciousness, a much more urban examination of the lessening of civic engagement can be found in Douglas Rae’s City, a look at the rise and fall of New Haven, CT.

Rae describes how firsthand civics lessons were at one time available to nearly every citizen. A factory line worker may return home at the end of the day and serve as a political ward captain or neighborhood band leader or building association supervisor or an officer in the Masonic Lodge. These groups were of particular importance to immigrants and minorities as it provided a civic education that was often otherwise unavailable. The shear number of civic organizations was immense, and people participated. Rae contends that only the repeated mingling of a person’s social, personal and business life can create a healthy civic environment.

We have lost the ability and knowledge needed to govern a subdivision. We have retreated to our enclaves removed from personal interaction and, gasp, conflict, with the illusionary self-assurance that we need not be engaged in the civic life of our communities. The damage is two-fold: 1) residents of subdivisions such as those above no longer know how to make community decisions and 2) urban areas are disproportionately deprived of educated, engaged residents.

And now non-profit organizations supporting everything from autism research to bird watching are immensely popular at the same time participation in governing our neighborhoods, towns, cities and states is not. This past weekend in St. Louis more than 60,000 people participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a 5K walking/running event in downtown St. Louis. I applaud their efforts and at the same time lament the lack of civic engagement.

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