“Could you please turn it down, just a little bit?!” Janet Kalish turned away from me and yelled across the room, to the group of neighborhood kids bunched around the community center’s single computer. They were blasting rap music as loud as the speakers would go, and some of the boys, dressed in black puffy jackets and jeans, mimicked the rapper whose music video played on the screen. The kids looked up, and one of them turned the volume down. Or seemed too. A minute later, the noise was back again, and Janet and I couldn’t hear ourselves talk.
We were at a party to raise rent for the 123 Community Space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The space, founded by four grassroots organizations focused on anarchism and freeganism, was conceived as a neighborhood gathering-place for young people and community members interested in starting creative projects. Kalish, a middle-aged Spanish teacher and an active member of the New York freegan community, was collecting admission fees that night. She began asking newcomers for donations, but the kids continued to brush past her, in and out, avoiding eye contact. As word of the admission fee began to spread, they slowly dissipated.
New York City’s freegans place a high premium on community, and the success of the 123 Community Space is a case in point. The space now hosts programs every day of the week, from a bike repair workshop to a screen-printing class. It hasn’t always been easy, and the space’s website describes some of the challenges that have come up along the way. The center was founded by a group of mostly white young people in what has long been a predominantly black neighborhood. As the rap music incident demonstrates, building community in a diverse environment isn’t always an easy process.
Nevertheless, New York City freegans still pursue it rather doggedly, holding regular group meetings and ‘trash tours,’ and organizing potlucks with the loot from their dumpster-diving expeditions. Whatever benefits these rituals provide, they are also a reaction against what many perceive as the decline of community in the broader culture.
“I do think people work too hard chasing the almighty dollar and spend too little time doing what is meaningful in life, such as sharing time with loved ones, being artistic, creative, and active within a community,” said Kalish in an email message. She pointed to obesity and the rise of third-party childcare as evidence that today, many people are too busy to exercise or even raise their own children.
This is more than just abstract philosophizing: in recent years, social scientists and critics have documented the decline of community in America rather exhaustively. In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, he described how social networks generate social capital by facilitating information flows between people and encouraging reciprocity among community members. Putnam also introduced a mountain of data showing that social capital in the U.S. has been declining over the past 25 years. For instance, surveys conducted during that period have shown a 50 percent drop in attendance of club meetings, a 43 percent drop in family dinners, and a 35 percent drop in “having friends over.”
The likely forces behind these shifts are familiar to anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last decade. Technological innovation has certainly played a role, with the advent of devices like the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) rendering every spare moment a potential working moment. The increasingly global nature of economic life may be another culprit. In his 2005 book American Mania: When More is Not Enough, UCLA neurobiologist Peter Whybrow points out that in the model of capitalism concieved by Adam Smith, devotion to the market was balanced by the demands of community. “With globalization,” as one reviewer for the New York Times put it, “the idea of doing business with neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets are off.”
Arthur Crosman, a student and freegan who teaches bike repair at the 123 Community Space, agreed. “There’s something about working for a gigantic company where people become removed from the consequences of their work,’ he said. “Globalization makes us forget the local.”
Freegans try to combat this isolation by emphasizing interdependence wherever they can. Many have qualms about modern capitalism, but they still believe in the division of labor. As freegan Cindy Rosin told a group of students at New York University recently, one dumpster diver can often support several hungry people. “I know a lot of people who are the food provider for their household,” she said.
Technology and globalization aside, the decline of some American communities may have a far more unlikely source: diversity. According to conventional liberal gospel, diversity breeds greater tolerance and understanding. But new social science research from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam shows that in the short run, increased immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social capital and solidarity. At the same time, his research points to the importance of efforts like the 123 Community Space in trying to rebuild these things.
“New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down,’” he writes. “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” But Putnam goes on to say that with time, as members of different communities adapt to one another, diversity actually increases social capital by “creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.” This is intuitively obvious to many of us; it explains the allure of places like New York City. And it is precisely what the founders of the 123 Community Space are going for. If they can get there, it’ll be to the tune of rap music.