Paradigm shift in the suburbs

In my last entry, I started exploring signs that things are really changing in the deep way that is sometimes called a paradigm shift. Is all the populist talk in Congress just the noise of people who will say anything to get reelected, even if that means pretending to be outraged by the corporations whose donations ultimately decide who is eligible to run for election? Or have things shifted to the point that they know they have to bite the hand that feeds them? Has the tide turned against global capitalism? Is a new world upon us?

It is one thing for cities or progressive suburbs (i.e. those near San Francisco with big universities, like Berkeley or Palo Alto) to dabble in cooperative behavior, but are we starting to see something different? Are new and important ideas starting to catch on in the sorts of places that progressives have generally written off as conservative wastelands? Are dramatic shifts in consciousness and behavior happening everywhere?

It seems so. Last week, NPR reported that an effort called “Wanna Start a Commune?” has taken root in one of those fire-prone canyons near LA that city-dwellers love to hate. The idea is to take the natural cluster provided on a cul-de-sac and use it as an asset. The residents face each other and have a distinct boundary that often includes a good number of houses for community organizing. So this group has provided a model for how to organize to make the best of their land-use pattern. They’ve even created a manual to help copycats figure out how to approach their neighbors. And their manifesto includes this:

“The good news is that we’re already turning towards each other more than ever before; for inspiration, for comfort, for help, for joy. It’s a simple act to take that ‘turning towards’ and make it official. The act of starting a commune can be literal, or symbolic. Becoming more collective is the goal. Join with those around you and together decide how and where.”

This isn’t just happening in California. A couple of months ago, I wrapped up a book tour with a visit to Broomfield, Colorado. This is an older suburb in a somewhat conservative state. So one might not expect to find a faith community that is actively working to carry each others’ burdens by sharing homes and cars as needed. But that is exactly what I found in the refuge.

Kathy Escobar is one of the pastors at the refuge, and she recently wrote an essay about the needs of suburbanites, which she describes as being generally hidden from view. She sees a need to address the suburban “world of divorce, addiction, foreclosures, bankruptcies, evictions, domestic violence, spiritual doubt, and loneliness.”

For years I’ve been intrigued by the ways that conservative states and small towns can use their relatively intact communities as a bolster against economic disintegration. The Oklahoma Food Co-op is distributing local products statewide and being copied by many other place like Idaho and Nebraska; the progressive coastal areas are lagging behind. Community-owned stores like the Garnet Mercantile of Ely, Nevada are reversing economic decline by transforming abandoned chain stores into vital economic engines; I’m not aware of similar efforts in cities facing similar store closures.

Suburbs may not see the same economic decay and they certainly don’t have the intact multi-generational communities found in rural areas. However, maybe the social poverty is as effective a motivator as economic poverty.

I always pictured change starting in the cities, on the coasts, near the universities that churn out idealistic youngsters with all sorts of exciting new ideas. But ironically, those places are the most insulated from the changes that are happening. City folks might have all sorts of highfalutin’ critiques of globalization and capitalism, but it is people in “Red America” that are really feeling the impacts of corporate centralization, unsustainable resource extraction, and poorly-constructed sprawl. 

And it may be that the are going to lead the charge. They have already created a host of important projects that we should all be considering. There is certainly room for critique of these approaches (for example, will they be used to maintain exclusivity and keep out “others” in times of disaster?) But we should take them seriously. They might teach everyone a thing or two.

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