Posts tagged community

Community Glue: differentiating urban communities by their social emphasis

Since leaving college in Atlanta and “going West, young man!”, I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, the former a lot longer than the latter (15 vs. 3 years). People have asked in both places what I see as the big differences between the two urbanities, geography and topography aside. Usually I just respond that they aren’t terribly comparable; they’re just different. One isn’t “better” than the other. They each offer wonders and frustrations.

One of the key differences I do point to is social focus. I like to describe the Bay Area as a very “event-oriented” culture, where emphasis is placed on doing things together. Check out this event. We’re going to that event. Get your tickets now, they’ll sell out. I’ll see you there! Oh you went to that show? We danced our butts off! The social glue tends to bind itself around outwardly focused events, the places where people meet to talk, drink, dance, laugh, and have a good time together. “You mean you didn’t see my invite on Facebook?” I often hear. (Nevermind not getting a good old-fashioned call, that takes too much time and we’re all just, well, busy!) If you want to “keep up,” you’d better grok social media, babe.

San Francisco Skyline and iconic Golden Gate

And it comes at a price – for me anyway – physically, monetarily, and I dare say even psychically. I looked at my calendar today and was exhausted just thinking about it – every evening this month filled with the possibility and promise of something to do.  And don’t get me wrong, I love going out – well, sometimes anyway – and have a wonderful and supportive community of friends and beloveds. But even as my own single, unattached bread-winner, I’m starting to feel a pang in my pocketbook. I tallied up over a grand in event expenses in just the last few months. I balanced my checkbook and realized I don’t “go out” for under $50 any more – and usually not under a hundred if there’s a ticket to an event involved. Stuff’s gotten spendy in the nation’s most expensive city. Event halls are raking in the bucks to pay corporate landlords and performers who can either barely or completely not afford to live in the city’s confines. The home of the $5 happy hour cocktail has been evicted and now migrated as far away as Kansas City.

And as an introvert (my friends reading this will continue to turn their heads askew in disbelief) it takes a psychic toll. Going out takes a lot of energy for introverts. It’s refreshing and fun only in temporal (and short at that) and metered doses. The law of diminishing returns lives on a steep downward curve. Getting around this city has always been a bit challenging, and becoming more troublesome – parking always sucks, biking is increasingly dangerous even along the quieter bike-designated corridors, on-demand cars add up and are having mixed impacts on the social and physical fabric of the city. Surely you can walk anywhere if you have the time! But who does; the show starts in ten minutes!

Oops, it’s easy to slip into critique and kvetch about San Francisco. What about Portland? After my recent visit back to the fair City of Roses, I noticed immense changes in the six years I’ve been gone, both to the physical space and to the community dynamic. Economic pressures from heightened real estate investment are driving long-time residents away, making it challenging for new folks to establish root in a job market I never found terribly robust. The rental market is tight – places I knew rented for under a thousand a month are now double in price – and there’s no rent control measures.

The Goddess Portlandia lends a helping hand to Her denizens


But I want to focus instead on the Community Glue – the binding force that brings people together, strengthens relationships, and builds community capital. And Portland has that in spades. The emphasis is less about events – certainly Portland has plenty, albeit in much lesser magnitude and frequence than the Bay Area, it still remains culturally rich. People value relationships and connections. The “event” is usually just a means to the end of building and enjoying those connections. Jokes about having potlucks in Portland are endless. “Portlandia” did get many things right about the quirky social nature of the city’s rosy denizens (they’ll tell you it’s way off base, usually out of resentment for their own quirks being hyperbolically characterized; the show also way misses the mark in other ways, but that’s a different topic).

I remember when the markets crashed in 2008 and the mortgage debacles unraveled. I was standing in my kitchen in the cute Buckman neighborhood of Portland, discussing the implications with my economist housemate, when another housemate brought in the day’s Oregonian newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle headline might have read very scientifically and policy wonky: “Fannie Mae Lending Strategies Collapse in Market Debacle”. The Oregonian above-the-fold article was more likely, “Family Homes Lost in Mortgage Woes.” I remember such a front page article that centered primarily around a family in Gresham who had lost their home because they could no longer afford the underwater mortgage rates. It highlighted the same aspects of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess that the SF Chronicle did, but with a completely different frame: it was about people. Not events, not market mechanisms, not corporate greed. It focused on the hardships of people. And that story resonates much more deeply with Oregonians than the other.

The question I’m most often asked in San Francisco is “Do you want to go to [insert event here] this weekend?” The question I was most often asked in Portland was, “Do you want to take a walk up Mount Tabor?” People are connecting in both situations, but the emphasis and dynamic in which that connection occurs is, to me, very different.

Again, one isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different. They each have value. But I truly miss ending my week with a potluck of homegrown treats and singing together around a cozy fire. Seems like it’s high time to ignite that type of glue in my San Francisco living room.


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“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”

So that this blog doesn’t fall off the end of the earth, I wanted to rekindle it with a long-time favorite quote from Marianne Williamson that came across my desk again today:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”    – Marianne Williamson

She’ll be speaking in San Francisco tonight, Tuesday, September 22nd, at EcoTuesday (, on the connection between sustainability and spirituality.

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Accelerating Sustainable Communities

Lately I’ve been calling my project an “accelerator for sustainable communities.” And I’m realizing this term “accelerator” applies to so many facets of community building and what I call “writing the new story” of our culture. I liken the concept to that of a technology or business incubator, where new ideas are given enough support (financial, expertise, development assistance) to survive, develop and mature, launch, and hopefully thrive on their own. Applying this to sustainable community building means that community projects (and even whole communities) are afforded the support they need to bear fruit and thrive.
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Green America’s Solutions from the Green Economy

I haven’t written much about the national economic situation, stimulus package, solutions, etc. so I’ll let Alisa Gravitz of Green America (formerly named Co-op America) do it for me for today! Read Green America’s Solutions from the Green Economy.

Green America focuses on increasing investment in clean tech and building local economy. Good things indeed, and an important way to channel money in the right direction. They don’t delve much into the currency-less community-building environment. Community to them seems to mean spend local, and not so much on spending nothing. Localizing economy is a good thing, but more importantly, demonetizing your transactions is a great practice to develop – and get used to – especially as belts everywhere tighten.

Host a potluck. Grow food together. Guess what, now’s the time to start community gardens and gardening with your neighbors and friends. And installing rain barrels. For free. You’ll need food and water before you need a Prius. Trust me.

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Sustainable Economic Development and Policy. Where do communities fit in?

What are the biggest needs and gaps in business and economic development policy, here in Portland, in the state of Oregon (quite a different industrial base on the whole than Portland’s entrepreneurial and small business enterprise)? I see a need to engage groups of small businesses around sustainability, and to refocus policy, investment, and capital on building community and community-scale resources (i.e. vs. the standard model of individual, competitive businesses). There are so many discussions happening among neighborhood groups, non-profits, business alliances, and non-profits about community building as a response to economic downturn, and creating new and non-monetary means of exchange. Where does that leave local and state economic development agencies in the long term? Or even the short term, as communities move further away from conventional economic development models and create new localized economies of exchange? The challenge for the state may not be as much in raising and distributing capital as it will be adapting and responding to what communities create in response to the economic downturn/crisis that could make large-scale economic development efforts less relevant. Maybe I’m not entirely on target and/or missing a key piece of this puzzle (quite likely!), but it’s an interesting and active conversation in Portland right now. Read the rest of this entry »

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Portland Community Building Events and Conversations

I’m amazed – and excited – by the abundance of conversations and convocations happening in Portland right now about creating community, extracting ourselves from the decaying economic paradigm, sharing resources, preparing for even tougher times, and supporting each other. Read the rest of this entry »

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Funding Sustainability: How competition is sinking environmental and social advocacy organizations

I recently did some writing for a client about how non-profit organizations fail to achieve sweeping societal and environmental change because they are structurally embedded in systems that operate very inefficiently, systems that perpetuate the cultural “software” of competition. The title of this blog posting captures two areas where that software fails to produce sustainable outcomes: in funding sustainability efforts, and in what I call fellowship, or organizational collaboration, which I’ll explain below.
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