Catherine Storing offered two definitions of community during her recent presentation at TEDx North Adams.

Faulty definition:

We look, feel and think the same and don’t allow strangers

Optimistic definition:

We have different ideas, backgrounds, goals and dreams, but we agree to respect each other and work together to make the world a better place

 This made me think of the neighborhood in the Bronx, NY, that was my community growing up. My mother once shared with me that she did not want to move to the suburbs because she valued the diversity of city life.  Yet I have few memories of diversity as a child. Yes, there were several churches within a few blocks and an Irish pub next door. Our butcher, Carmine, was Italian. But the vast majority of residents and shops were Jewish. In a time before NYC schools closed for the Jewish holidays, there were only a handful of students and teachers in my neighborhood school when we stayed home.  

I was brought up to respect people of all races and religions, but as a child I never actually knew anyone who wasn’t like me. Strangers were easily recognizable. I remember coming home from elementary school one day and being met by a neighbor. She told me there had been a stranger in the building and so all the children were being escorted to their apartments. I was too young to wonder what made someone a stranger, more fascinated by this elderly woman I recognized from down the hall holding my hand. And while I still think that the fact that the community came together to keep its children safe was a good thing, now I can imagine that the “stranger” may not have been dangerous, but merely different.  

The last time I went to look at my old neighborhood it was largely Hispanic. The candy stores were bodegas. But I wonder if it hadn’t become just another version of the community that looks and thinks the same and doesn’t welcome strangers.

Barbara Viniar1 Comment