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The 1995 publication of Robert Putnam's, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" continues a long obsession among scholars with the loss of community. Early 20th century sociologists in Chicago detailed how the urban environment eroded the fabric of kinship ties that formed the basis of community in rural society. Several decades later, students of urban life lamented the passing of ethnic neighborhoods which they saw as the core of the urban community. Currently, we are told that rapid advances in technology have rendered place almost irrelevant in many circumstances. Complementing this is the research on social networks which has demonstrated the rich existence of a-spatial communities. Given these trends, the question facing us is, can we have geographically based communities?
We argue that such community is possible and that it can be found in many instances. (1) Moreover, there is growing evidence that spatial communities are desired by significant segments of the population. Numerous surveys have revealed that, given a choice between city, suburb, small town, or rural area, most people prefer to live in a small town. The reasons behind this choice are presumably the face to face contact, the informality, and the ability to know all of one's neighbors. (2) Trends in housing suggest an effort by some developers to respond to these desires. The new urbanism seeks to recreate the small town feel by combining residential development with a town center designed to serve as the social and commercial magnet for the residents.
However, in the absence of the natural ties of kinship, as in the rural communities studied by the Chicago School sociologists, or the ties of ethnicity, as in the older urban communities, some entity must be present to create, and even more important, to sustain, community. Increasingly that entity is neighborhood institutions. By performing critical functions, neighborhood institutions can maintain the key ingredients of community such as: a sense of belonging; an identity; positive ways to interact with others; shared events and activities; common values; loyalty. (3)
This article examines the role of neighborhood organizations in performing these community building functions in the Philadelphia neighborhood of West Mt. Airy. The term community building is used to capture the dynamic quality that characterizes this phenomenon. Community building is not an end, but rather, an on-going process that must be continually cultivated. West Mt. Airy was selected because of its rich institutional history and its reputation as a viable community with a strong sense of community identification. The analysis is based on a case study of West Mt. Airy. The data was collected through a series of semi-structured interviews with personnel from numerous institutions in and near West Mt. Airy and community activists, a review of organizational materials, files, and literature, and a review of news clippings from local and citywide papers.
The Setting: West Mt. Airy
West Mt Airy, a neighborhood in the northwest section of Philadelphia, has achieved national acclaim for its long-standing racial diversity. (4) Although one of the authors explored that aspect in another article, the focus here is on community and the role that institutions play in community-building. (Ferman, Singleton, and DeMarco, 1998) Some of these organizations, however, were critical players in West Mt. Airy's ability to remain a racially diverse community. Thus, on the most fundamental level-community preservation- these organizations played a pivotal role. To the extent that these organizations have helped to shape and reinforce a specific identity for Mt. Airy, they continue to play a significant role in community building.
Occupying approximately 2 square miles, West Mt. Airy is bounded on the West side by Fairmount Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the county, and on the East side by Germantown Avenue, a major commercial street. To the northwest and south lie residential communities. Within these boundaries, the community is mostly residential with a few small retail and service operations scattered throughout the neighborhood. The housing stock ranges from modest row and twin houses to significantly large houses situated on equally large lots. Typically, the housing stock increases in size and price as one moves away from Germantown Avenue and towards the park.
As is evident from the data in table 1, West Mt. Airy is not representative of most urban neighborhoods. Data on the critical indicators of education, income, and home ownership levels reveal that West Mt. Airy is a community whose socioeconomic status is significantly higher than the median for Philadelphia and for the nation as a whole. Consequently, our findings regarding institutions are not necessarily generalizable, but that is not our intention here. Rather, this case represents an exploration into how institutions can contribute to community building and community maintenance. We purposely chose West Mt. Airy because of its richness of institutions and its reputation for being an active and viable neighborhood. It is active in that the opportunities for participation are plentiful and they are opportunities that are enjoyed by large segments of the population. It is viable in the sense of having a strong and active housing market and a very positive reputation within the city and even beyond the city's formal boundaries. Examining Mt. Airy in depth allows us to contextualize the interactive relationship between institutions and individuals. Using a community like Mt. Airy for heuristic value allows us to identify some of the roles that institutions can and do play in community building. These findings can then be applied to communities with different demographic profiles to see under what conditions institutions can play such roles. Our thinking along the lines of the heuristic value of this case study is inspired by Leanne Rivlin's insightful and innovative comparison of the Lubavitch community and the homeless community, two extremes of cohesion. (1987)
Some clarification regarding the precise role of community is warranted. This term and all its iterations (community empowerment, local decision making, individual choice, and the like) has been warmly embraced by liberals and conservatives alike, but, for vastly different reasons. For liberals, it bespeaks notions of grassroots democracy, citizen participation, and empowerment of typically …