Saturday, September 29, 2012

Strong Communities - General Introduction

Growing up in a strong community or neighborhood instills all of the desirable morals in the fabric of humanity. Although many communities developed over time in a quite natural progression, human evolution tends to chip away at the network of inter-personal relationships over time. Rebuilding such strong neighborhoods - although relatively simple - is not an easy task.
The community in whole must generally and genuinely be interested in the strength of the group; individuals must understand and appreciate the similarities and differences between each other, and value the social interactions, rapport, comraderie, and larger village above - or at least at the same level as - their individual desires. These characteristics will result in life-long friendships, memories, self-confidence, social savvy, and sense of belonging.
To build, or re-build, as the case may be, a strong community, there must also be a balance of commerce. Businesses make up an integral part of the functioning of any viable society. While a hamlet must be large enough to support its businesses, the storekeepers and residents must value each other and respect the importance of their own reliance on each other. In our fast-pace and hurried lives, it becomes very easy to pass by the neighborhood apothecary or grocer on our way to the super center. Doing this, however, weakens the district businesses and damages the small-town relationships.
Now, more than ever, it is very important - vital, in fact - to slow down in our own neighborhoods to do our shopping before we bring our hard-earned cash to a less appreciative big box chain conglomerate. Local shops struggle to profit since their volume is much less than the high-profile big-banners, and they must weigh their prices carefully so that profit margin doesn't discourage repeat patronage. Often unsung benefits to the community stem from the mom-and-pop store neighborhood - specifically generosity. Similarly, the corner store is more likely to hire from within the borough than from without, and is less likely to dismiss employees as "just a number", than the 1-acre warehouse large-cart competitors.
There is, of course, something to be said about the affordability of the monstrous department stores, but at what price to we save money? The neighbor-owned deli is within walking distance, so the price of gasoline doesn't matter. The local proprietor is more likely to help out at the school play or coach for your son's baseball team. The independent hardware reseller is more likely to help you out with a flat tire or congratulate you on your daughter's graduation.
Business owners must also work harder to know their communities. It's important for them to remember their customers - preferably by name. They need to know their frequenters' purchasing habits, shopping trends, and personal quarks. When customers are greeted by first name, they inherently become more loyal. The success of a small shop often comes down to personal relationships, caring quality, and repeat consumers.
Residents must also work to establish bonds of friendship with their neighbors. Saying "Hello", rather than deliberately avoiding eye contact, is a very useful social skill. Random acts of kindness also fortify relationships and catalyze reciprocity. Becoming involved in neighborhood associations, charitable causes, philanthropy, sports associations, community clubs, neighborhood watch groups, and social clubs is a very effective way of strengthening ties. This will also encourage others to do the same.
Getting to know neighbors can also reap other benefits. You may have a hammer but need an axe; pre-established friendships with a neighbor will make it easier to ask that neighbor to borrow an axe - and it will be easier for the neighbor to have enough trust to say "yes". If you're having a barbeque, invite a neighbor - perhaps one whom you've never met before. Knowing a little bit about each of your neighbors may come in handy someday; by establishing better relationships, our network of assets expands. People who network within their community have an easier time finding a last-minute baby sitter or a place for the kids to swim for a few hours.
Small gestures are sometimes very powerful. For instance, a new-to-the-neighborhood family moved in across from my parents. They were, like so many young families, struggling to balance their finances. When they bought the house, they had some unexpected expenses and couldn't afford to buy a snow blower. When the first snow storm hit, my father finished his driveway and had a compulsion to clean that neighbor's driveway as well. After a light winter of only five significant snow storms, the very appreciative neighbors learned a few lessons about home-ownership and about community. Several years passed by and nothing than brief small talk occurred after that. One day, probably more than nine years later, my father was unable to take care of his driveway. Very concerned, my parents and siblings and I put a plan together (we lived an average of 15 minutes away). However, when the first snow storm landed, not one but three neighbors generously handled the task very early that morning (actually, for the whole winter).

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