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The EditorsFebruary 28, 2011

While Americans were trying to make sense of the mass shooting in Tucson last month, public debate was renewed on the ban of automatic weapons, the need for improved mental health referral and the vitriolic political atmosphere. Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, however, pointed in a different direction. “He didn’t know most of his neighbors,” Mr. Rucker wrote in a description that could apply just as much to Jared Loughner, the loner who took six lives, as to the resident Mr. Rucker was interviewing. “Socially, everyone keeps to themselves,” the neighbor of Loughner’s admitted.

Individualism has always been prized in the United States for the blessings it confers: freedom for persons to define themselves as they wish and to explore the world on their own terms. But there is also a serious downside, never as vividly evident as it was in Tucson when one individual ran wild a few weeks ago, or in the 24 other mass shootings that have taken place in the past decade, or the 43 during the 1990s, or the 32 during the 1980s.

If the Constitution enshrines the rights of the individual, the history of this nation qualified them by building in a social dimension. Every New England village had a town hall in which people met to debate local issues, and there were clubs and organizations that people joined to educate or entertain themselves. These affiliations did not cancel the American pursuit of individuality, but they modified it by generating a sense of the social self—an understanding that each person is in part a product of society and is also responsible to society.

Even as the United States evolved from a nation of farmsteads and rural communities into a network of large cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans did not lose a sense of the social self. The grange halls may have vanished, but people somehow found a sense of community within the large urban setting. In the early postwar years, the neighborhood was a buffer against the anonymity of the metropolis. Stickball games in the street, conversations with neighbors sitting on their front porches or stoops, butcher shops in which customers were on a first-name basis with the man behind the counter, a policeman who greeted everyone as he walked his beat and gossips who took the measure of everyone—all were familiar features of the old neighborhood. It was a time when people in the neighborhood had a claim on, even if not a high regard for, one another.

The neighborhood and the sense of social self that it nourished survived the rise of technology, the development of new means of transportation and communication, the migration from rural farms, the growth of large cities and the shrinking size of the family. The decline of the social self, then, is not the direct result of technology or the changes it wrought.

Sometime after World War II the neighborhood began its long decline. The exposed front porch looking out on the street gave way to the sheltered backyard enclosed by a chain-link fence. The sociologist Robert Putnam documents the phenomenon, in his best-selling book Bowling Alone. The author shows how Americans have drifted away from neighborhood associations, participation in local clubs and organizations and even the type of social visiting that once was a major recreational outlet. Putnam discounts many of the standard explanations for this phenomenon: family changes, the growing number of working wives, suburban sprawl and the mounting pressures of work. In the end, the author can assert only that the loss of the social self is the result of a generational change whose cause remains a mystery.

Whatever the explanation, the gradual decline of the neighborhood has left residents without a safety net that served important purposes. The old neighborhood provided support for people in need—not always the penniless, but certainly the friendless. Jared Loughner seemed to be one of those. So were many of the others responsible for the number of mass shootings that has increased dramatically: 22 in six decades before 1960; 119 in the five decades since 1960.

Recouping the neighborhood is not an exercise in nostalgia, but a protective strategy looking to the future. It is a means of affording loners the help they may need or, at the very least, of guarding others against the damage the worst of them can inflict. Even the government behemoth Depart-ment of Homeland Security, with its sophisticated spyware and its budget of billions, has admitted that the most effective means to forestall terrorist plots is community watchfulness. Six would-be terrorists in Lackawanna, N.Y., were arrested in 2002 after they were reported by suspicious neighbors. Imagine what sharp-eyed neighbors might have reported about Jared Loughner. Perhaps they might have been able to help him before he picked up his Glock.

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11 years 11 months ago
MINDY FULLILOVE THOMPSON'S book "Root Shock" should help your readers to understand this phenomenon. It's the system of social relationships, even loose relationships, like the tiny roots on larger ones serve a function in social systems.

Dr. Thompson's work in psychiatry and sociology focuses on understanding 'mental health' in the context of large urban areas.
Mary Ellen Carroll
11 years 11 months ago
I agree with your column but would also like to suggest reasons for hope.  I know of a number of situations in this and other Long Island communities, where the community, hearing about a situation of someone being sick or needing help, rallied to help in many outstanding ways.  It is not all darkness and gloom!
Mike Evans
11 years 11 months ago

On the west coast, we most often have neighborhoods broken down into very short streets and small cul-de-sacs all with privacy fenced yards. It is almost impossible to even see your neighbor as we all drive into our remote controlled garages and cocoon inside or outside with our view blocked off. Talking over the back fence is verboten and welcoming new move-ins is more and more rare. Block parties are virtually non-existent. We do not know each other, nor do we often share our lives in terms of even basic information. Unless there are brash young children who are naturally social, we may never even know our neighbor's name. To overcome this decline of neighborliness, will take a heruclean effort. It may have to begin with a neighborhood tragedy that shocks us into socialability.

Edward Hodkinson
11 years 11 months ago
I think an issue you are missing here is not necessarily Jared Loughner's connection
to his neighborhood, per se, but the lack of accountability (ie, connectivity) to his
own family.  "It takes a Village" mentality conveniently passes the buck to
the community at large and lacks the focus on the aspect of his own family life.

As Catholics in the community, we first build our communities by the growth and development of the family. A neighborhood ethos was more effective in combatting
violence in our cities and towns in the past because of the very strength of family in
our American civic life.  The more we look to a wider group, ie. government, social organizations, the church, to substitute for the unique role of the family as God's
first building block in societal progress and stability, the more we are in fact alienated
from God's true design and plan for stability, development and interaction in our daily

To be better neighbors, we first have to have more loving families. As Father Peyton would say  "The family that prayes together...."
David Smith
11 years 11 months ago
The causes of neighborhood decline are no "mystery" (last sentence in sixth paragraph).  They're a combination of two-income families, television, automobiles, and the freeways that made suburban living practical.

But I wonder how ideal neighborhoods ever were in maintaining a sense of community.  I grew up in a city neighborhood in the forties and fifties, and though we were somewhat close to a few neighbors, most houses were tenented by people I wouldn't have known even by sight.

Humans are gregarious, but selectively so.  Mere propinquity doesn't make for voluntary societies.
11 years 11 months ago
And I would add to Ed H's post... The family that eats together stays together.  But how many families do that anymore?   It is at the dinner table that family members connect, tell stories about what happened to each of them during the day, etc. etc. even some arguments might ensue, but they usually ironed themselves out at the end of dinner. 
There is a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore who started the Grace Before Meals program which encourages families to have dinner together.  He even suggests topics to be talked about during meals.  Preparing dinner together is highly recommended.  It's during this time that family members connect with one another.  I guess the program has become a movement at least in Baltimore.  The website is: www.gracebeforemeals.com
Nora McKenna
11 years 11 months ago
I don't know if all this hindsight and nostalgia re urban neighborhood life is all that accurate.

I grew up in a Queens, NY neighborhood and while we knew everyone in our parish and perhaps those who lived in a ten block radius or so of our apartment, people still tended to adopt a mind-your-own-business attitude when it came to the more troublesome aspects of various families. We knew who drank, who hit their wives and abused their kids, but no one ever did anything about it, and the police were probably not likely to respond to those situations unless things got seriously out of control (and by "control", I mean the abuser could no longer talk his/her way out of it).

There was also a genuine distrust of others getting too nosy, and for good reason. Those who did get too inquisitive about private family issues were the gossips and busybodies who loved to know the seemier details of everyone else's lives, but only so they could judge and sneer. You knew who they were and you avoided them like the plague. It's unlikely Jared Laughner's mother would have confided in one of those people no matter how "friendly" and "helpful" they might have appeared.

People definitely helped quietly when issues such as food and clothing were concerned - moms were careful to see that everyone got lunch or that warm coats were discreetly passed on to needy children, but people were much less likely to get involved with the kind of trouble Jared Laughner and his family were in. When we were kids, we were told to stay away from certain kids and it was because they were troubled or their families had issues. There was a lot of shunning and avoidance in those neighborhoods, too.  

ed gleason
11 years 11 months ago
In the fifties we joined the Christian Family Movement. Many of the 'actions' were centered on getting to know your city neighbors, A simple action was to wash your car Saturday, at the curb, take a long time and neighbors would inevitably say. 'will you do mine next?' We were able to 'organize' the neighborhood rather quickly after an East side vs West side softball game with a MVP trophy given out to the best child/adult player  every year, CFM, The leadership, the interest, all faded by 1970. to bad, so sad.  
David Smith
11 years 11 months ago
Ed and Peg (#8), that sounds like an admirable sort of thing to do.  But it clearly wasn't something that happened just because you and your neighbors lived close to one another.  You had to first diagnose the problem and then decide what you wanted to do about it and then do it.  If you'd not been there to think and act, quite likely nothing would have happened.  So your story kind of - indirectly at least - illustrates the idea that there may be nothing inherently social and protecting about neighborhoods.
ed gleason
11 years 11 months ago
David; Right.. CFM taught the laity actors to use Aquinas' prudential judgment method brought forward by Cardinal Cardijn, Belgium 1940s  .. Observe, Judge, Act ... just as you posted.
A revival of that method is what the hoped for evengelization needs. You are correct too about ... proximity is not the answer... trained action/actors are the answer.    
11 years 11 months ago
I feel that the editors "fell apart" in the final paragraph of this well written commentary.  By using the example of the "Lackawana Five" as their wrap-up, they seemed to promote the exhortation by our Department of Homeland Security to "watch" our neighors instead of "watch-out for the well being" of our neighbors.
jane Perrin
11 years 11 months ago
My neighborhood has changed but has not disappeared. I grew up in the fifties and was witness to my parents relationships to our geographic neighbors. It was good,healthy and very necessary especially for the women of the neighborhood. They did not work outside the home and helped to sustain each other through difficult times and celebrated with each other through the good times.
My "neighborhood" is not geographic, but sustains me in much the same way. My neighbors are now called co-workeers. While we do not live on the same street, we share the better part of our day together. Our relationships are much the same as my stay at home mother's relationship was with her neighbors. We also celebrate the good times with our"neighbors" and help each other through the not so good times.
The role of n???eighbors ?? ?h?a?s? ?n?o?t? ?c?h?a?n?g?e?d? ?j?u?s?t? ?t?h?e?i?r? ?a?d?d?r?e?s?s?.?

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