The Rebuilding of Local Communities!
Where does the rebuilding of local communities that creates a sense of healthy community itself really happen? At the local level, whether it be in neighborhoods, towns, or cities. It is everywhere residents find a reason to band together.
And it is an answer to the fragmentation of local communities caused by the loss of so many blue collar jobs due to the Digital Revolution and Globalization of the workforce that has internationalized commerce so that corporations ignore national borders in their search for cheaper labor and new markets.
This has meant that towns, cities and states have had to look inward to heal their broken communities in order to provide citizens with the necessary means to grow and prosper.
Two Visions of Community
Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam in an American Prospect sequel article to Bowling Alone wondered what made a viable community: “Some seemingly obvious answers turned out to be irrelevant. Party politics or ideology makes little difference. Affluence and prosperity have no direct effect. Social stability or political harmony or population movements are not the key. None of these factors is correlated with good government as we had anticipated. Instead, the best predictor is one that Alexis de Tocqueville might have expected. Strong traditions of civic engagement – voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and literary circles, Lions Clubs, and soccer clubs – are the hallmarks of a successful region.”
My hometown of Redwood City had much to do with why I chose community development as a focus and discipline, as a way to bring people of different backgrounds and concerns together, because it had many of those ingredients—strong civic groups such as an active Rotary club that gave out thousands of scholarship dollars every year to college students and a historical society that gave 150 year-old Redwood City a strong sense of identity. It was also a small-town where we could easily interact with each other in neighborhoods such as mine that had many immigrants.
I learned the basic tools of community development later from my Peace Corps training, which were first put into practice in a medium-size Turkish village of approximately 800, and then as a member of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union that came to represent tens of thousands of farmworkers during its heyday. Foreign cultures were something I was familiar with because of the ethnic diversity of my own childhood neighborhood and background. I felt comfortable in different cultures because of the friendliness and hospitality shown by these communities of farmers and farmworkers, and my belief that we had a common humanity.
Redwood City is a San Francisco peninsula suburb full of history and diversity that was ahead of its time, in many ways. It is best known for the motto, “Climate Best by Government Test” on a sign that arches over El Camino Real, its major highway at that time. The sign was erected because the National Weather Service once had a Redwood City office, and christened its climate the best in the Bay Area and an ideal place to live. El Camino Real is Spanish for the King’s Highway originally built by Spanish explorers that first came to California in the 1700s. It connected California’s 21 missions built from 1769 to 1833 by Spain’s Catholic missionaries—more compelling history that gave Redwood City and the coastal region of California its unique identity.
It was this unifying identity that helped to make Redwood City a functioning community and the seat for San Mateo County, as well. I found keeping a historical record is one necessary ingredient that creates a common identity of a well-functioning community. Redwood City was founded in 1867, the oldest city on the San Francisco peninsula, because it had the only deep water port on San Francisco Bay south of San Francisco.
It was also a lumber town because the coastal mountains looming behind it were full of mature, first-growth Redwood trees that were brought down to its deep-water harbor and shipped to San Francisco and beyond.
Living in such a close-knit community as an eleven-year-old meant I could sell the San Francisco Call-Bulletin with its Sporting Green in the downtown bars on Main Street after school and make good tips as the Happy Hours became cheerier. I remember saving up the $36 needed to buy my first bike so I could graduate to an actual newspaper route. My Dad and I brought the money in a one-quart milk carton and dumped it on the counter of the bicycle shop, where it was counted out penny, by nickel, by dime, by quarter. I then owned a new Schwinn bicycle and became a Redwood City Tribune door-to-door newspaper boy.
I had attended Sequoia Union High School; one of just three high schools in our county at the time. That meant our annual Thanksgiving Day football Big Game with Palo Alto High was such an important community event that even today it is played in Stanford University’s football stadium, where it has attracted as many as 20,000 rabid fans.
My neighborhood was full of immigrants, including a Polish farmer across the street, Mr. Kolka, who raised pigeons, goats, and had a large fruit orchard on several acres. Next door was the Penna family, Sicilian immigrants with four boys who were my playmates. A recently arrived German family lived next to the Pennas, and a Chinese family nearby had a grandmother with tiny, shrunken feet. I knew this because she exercised on their front lawn in the mornings.
My mother was also an immigrant; a British Citizen born in Jamaica before coming to San Francisco. She was from a family of Sephardic Jews that left Portugal during the Catholic Inquisition—first to Amsterdam, then London, until they arrived in Jamaica sometime during the Eighteenth century and established The Army and Navy Stores, Ship Chandlers, to provision ships that anchored in Kingston Harbor.
We all have individual family histories that contribute to our sense of identity, for better or worse. My father loved our history because his mother was a member of the DAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her family descended from minute men that fought in the Revolutionary War. So I grew up with a love of history; which was why I wanted to participate in history-making endeavors, such as the Peace Corps.
My education in community development was furthered when I became a member of the United Farmworkers Union, and learned how Cesar Chavez organized the UFW. Cesar’s early life shaped his vision of a community with greater justice and freedom for all.
His vision made him the consummate community organizer that could build the UFW. His family had lost their Arizona farm during the Great Depression and moved to Southern California to find work, just as John Steinbeck’s Joad Family did in the 1930’s Grapes of Wrath. That work was crop-picking as a child, so he came to intimately know the people he was to organize. His community was the mostly Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in the fields of California that later included Arizona, Florida and Texas farmworkers as his organizing efforts spread.
I was drawn to Cesar and the UFW Union in part cause because I had joined the Carpenter and Teamster unions while working my way through college. They were more responsive to local membership in those days when local members controlled the rules and regulations of their unions and had little contact with national leadership. Unfortunately, this doesn’t describe the later Teamsters Union the UFW clashed with during the 1970s period of United Farmworker strikes and boycotts that gave the Teamsters in particular a bad name.
The strongest unions are democratic and run by their members; including the AFL-CIO, United Mineworkers, and United Autoworkers unions that supported and gave financial aid to the United Farmworkers Union when growers and the Teamsters attempted to destroy it.
Cesar Chavez was successful because his was a vision of bottoms-up, ‘grass-roots’ organizing of the farmworkers, something he knew how to do because he had grown up in their community, as I said. That means the impetus to organize came from the farmworkers themselves who saw the important of community organizing and were willing to fight for the right to organize a union. His lacked certain administrative skills to some extent which hurt the UFW later. He was extremely charismatic and much better at motivating farmworkers than creating a long term, farmworkers union.
But he was able to unite religious leaders with social activists into a national movement for farmworker and immigrant rights. That is why he could enlist Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement, Reverend Chris Hartmire of the California Migrant Ministry, Walter Reuther, storied President of the United Auto Workers Union, the AFL-CIO, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the pro-labor Kennedy family to support the UFW’s cause. Cesar said many times the IBEW was his ideal of a democratically-run, grass roots labor union he wanted the UFW to emulate, because its members had a long history of active participation in their union.
I use these two visions of communities because they are an example of what successful community organizations or groups must contain—a compelling history or vision that unites them, and an adequate diversity of people and opinions so they can adapt to changing circumstances that can be difficult to control. Without such diversity, no community has remained functional and open to what will be unexpected changes, in my experience.
I graduated from Sequoia Union High School in 1958 and was accepted into the University of California Berkeley’s Engineering School that fall. The Korean War had ended in 1956. And there seemed to be no limit to future career possibilities. Jobs were plentiful; there were lots of opportunities for work and play on the San Francisco Peninsula.
California’s population was exploding in the 1950s; which was probably why the New York Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and became the storied San Francisco Giants, where I was able to watch Willie Mays and Willie McCovey play in Seals Stadium, former home of the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals.
Redwood City grew faster after I left for Berkeley in 1958, and I hardly recognize it today on return visits. It became a high tech center with some of the first computer company startups, and the home of Oracle, just as Silicon Valley was developing. Those memories of my neighborhood and Redwood City were the elements I thought all successful, well-functioning communities should contain.
Harlan Green © 2018
Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen