Finding community on Election Day

Even though it’s been a divisive election, planner and Community Contributor Michael Gaughan says we can look close to home to find community and common ground on Election Day and beyond.

I should know what community means. On a day to day basis, I refer to myself as a community development professional. I can point to data, financing, and policies all intended to bolster a “community.”

These indicators are a bit like Plato’s cave—jumping around in the shadows. Special interests and social media have co-opted the word and moved it away from a physical interpretation. But as a planner, city blocks and town squares are where my understanding of the concept is rooted.

It’s easy enough to know where I can find community, but is harder to define despite the connection to my everyday environment. Instead, the word is best characterized as a sense more than a statistic or measurement. Today, on our country’s Election Day and following two years of evoking and abusing the word, the feeling has never been stronger within me.

I went to the voting booth Tuesday and stood in line with my neighbors from across the street and down the block in Fairmount. I saw James who is walking and I saw Ingrid who is starting to crawl in a way that looks like a dance move. I also saw Sue, with a block tenure of over 20 years and unknown to me prior to our block party two weeks ago, who shares my love for the mountains.

Other members of the block, with whom I may have less in common, were also there to vote. I don’t know everyone’s name and may not have much in common, but this did not prevent an undeniable exercise in community when neighbors came together to help another track down the truck that ran into his car in the middle of the day.

My block, these neighbors, are the embodiment of “eyes on the street” and the power of community, together, at random, on a narrow street within Philadelphia.

One chance encounter after another, we learn from each other by learning about each other. A single mom that rents, a family of four that owns, a recent immigrant, a retiree, a postman, a librarian, a professor, and our dog Meatball—the mascot of the block.

I work on a daily basis to build the infrastructure of community life—parks, sidewalks, shops, and houses. Many times these are positioned as giving “ownership” to a community. The truth about community, as I’ve learned, is that for it to work, ownership has to be porous and non-exclusive. Each of these foundations of community is meaningless without my neighbors and the diversity of experiences they add to my own.

This requires a certain amount of letting go, or trust, in the people that differ from you. In our divisive society where exclusion abounds, community building starts with simply sharing a sidewalk or a street and making a step in the right direction.

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