January 20, 2011
We started as neighbors. As more of us arrived, we realized a need to organize how we lived together to provide for our needs and safety, but we started as neighbors. We knew each other, had work lives apart from our civic responsibilities and in a general sense looked out for each other because we were in the same place at the same time, all the time.
As America grew larger we lost our ability to know everyone in our community and needed to develop more dedicated resources to run cities. City government and civil service employment was born. Americans still had a sense of involvement in city and we defined that involvement as our “civic duty.” We had a shared sense of responsibility with and for each other. We were now citizens and less neighbors running community. But over time, that awareness of responsibility and ownership of the town by the citizens became more distant as services were provided professional by people who were paid to do things we all once chipped in to do. Time passed. Civics classes passed too – do they still teach them?
City became a we/they proposition – those who live in the city, and those who work for and serve the city. The model migrated so strongly in that direction that over the last decade or so municipal governments have talked about “customer service.” City is now a utility along with cable, phones and electric. I am not a member or heart-part of the cable, phone or electric company. Now, it appears, I am not a heart-part of city anymore either.
Neighbors, to citizens, to customers. And now it seems municipalities are talking more about reviving citizenship and civic responsibility. I get that. But I want to suggest it is far better to go the full two steps backward to being neighbors. You, as city leadership, want citizens to take responsibility, to not see themselves as entitled to city services. I agree. But stopping at “citizen” tells me I need to work without reminding me – at heart – that I BELONG! “Neighbor” is the goal. We are ALL neighbors. We LIVE together. And our lives depend on each other. Restore neighbors and responsible citizenship will naturally follow.
Here, for me, is the next step. Let’s talk about city differently. What happens if we see ourselves, all of us, as neighbors? (Where is Mr. Rogers when you really need him!) What if every civic discussion began with “Hi, my name is Rich. I live on 16th Ave. How about you?” Change the context from service to place. We live TOGETHER and in the same place. And this place, this city, will not develop a virtual branch online nor will it have a satellite neighborhood in another state. This is it. This is THE place. The one place we can know for sure that if we develop programs to gather with our neighbors the place will always be there.