Creating community isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding.
Last year, a neighbor friend, my partner Aisha and I decided to try and make our 12-story building more of a community. We wanted a place where we knew a lot of people, where people knew each other and sometimes helped one another.
We live in ParkMerced, a large housing development in San Francisco I would call lower-middle-class. A lot of teachers, nurses, bus drivers, tradesmen, and retired people live here, many of them 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. In recent years, we’ve seen reverse gentrification, as management has leased to more Section 8 housing assistance recipients, many of them disabled.
So, how to build a community? We’re all renters, and renters are notoriously difficult to organize. They come and go and tend not to see the buildings they live in as their home. But it can be done. We started with a monthly two-hour social in the building lobby on the second Fridays of each month. I made up flyers and posted them in the elevator, the lobby, and the laundry room the Sunday before the social. After the social, we take them down and reuse them next month.
Some people came, between 15–30 each time. The events lasted two hours but there wasn’t much to do besides talk, eat snacks and drink wine or juice. The socials were nice, but most residents gave them a miss.
Then one day I was on the nearby campus of San Francisco State University, and as luck had it, it was new student orientation day. A young man was there from a Black Gay Lesbian social club for students, and he had a big sign about “Building Community.” I asked him, “How do you do that? What do you actually do to build community? Because we’re trying to do that in our building.”
He thought for a minute and then said they tried to get people to share something about themselves with at least one other person. That made a lot of sense to me, and we started coming up with activities we could do at the socials where people shared about themselves. One was “What brought you to 405 [street name]?” We put the question on a sign and had post-it notes where people could write their answers. Their reasons were interesting; people liked the game.
Last month, I bought a large world map and a USA map on Maps.com. For the social, three neighbors — I always ask for help — taped them on the lobby walls with 8 1/2 X 11 signs that said “Where We’re From. Put a green sticker where you were born and yellow stickers where your grandparents were born.” I bought stickers at Target ($1.89 for a good supply), put them in open envelopes, and a friend taped them next to the maps.
At the social, people put up their stickers and looked where other people came from. We left the maps up overnight, and the next day, Saturday, more people played, including the custodian, to whom I explained the game, asked her to leave the maps up, and invited her to play. I planned to leave the maps and stickers up for a month or more. They certainly made the lobby more interesting than the plain housing project look it usually has.
Here’s the Drama
But Saturday night / Sunday morning someone stole the world map. I don’t know who or why; it just disappeared. That afternoon, Aisha put up a couple signs in the lobby saying, “We live at 405 as neighbors. Please return the map to [our apartment.]” I figured maybe a 20% chance of getting it back.
The theft made me sad. Not like we lost anything valuable or had been personally attacked, but just that I hoped to build community, and some people obviously didn’t care about that and would sabotage if they could get anything out of it. It hurt, as if my ideas and effort had been rejected. I didn’t get angry or cry, but I felt depressed, doubting what I was doing in life.
On the other hand, people in the building seemed as upset as I was. People would see Aisha or me in the elevator or the lobby and say ‘how awful about the map. Hope you get it back’ or words to that effect. So, in a way, the theft was having the purpose of bringing people together, which was the map’s purpose, after all.
Three days went by and nothing happened. Then Wednesday around 4:00, there was a knock on my door. It was a Russian neighbor from down the hall. He handed me the world map, neatly rolled up and taped. He said he had found it in the lobby and brought it up, because he knew it was ours and didn’t want it to disappear again.
I was so happy I could have cried. Tears did come off and on for a couple of hours. I don’t know why it felt so important to me. I hadn’t realized how much the loss had hurt, but the return felt wonderful.
We still don’t know who took the map or why they returned it, but I don’t need to. This morning I posted a big thank you in the lobby so people would know the map had been returned and whoever took it knows they are forgiven and still part of the community.
Neighbors were also pleased. A couple of folks told me, “Glad you got it back” or things like that. The whole mini-drama turned out very good for the community-building project.
I encourage all of us to do what we can to build community connection where we live. I now see that there will be challenges; there will be drama, but I also know that as times get crazier and tougher, a strong community will help us live good lives. I’m glad I have the time and energy to do this work.
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