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From Parochialism to Regionalism: A New Form of Community Debate?

September 18, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
There has been a host of local conversations related to our economy lately and I have been struck by the divergent ways in which they had been conducted.

I wonder if in some cases despite all the chatter, we have forgotten how to communicate. In our world of personal networks and the lack of time for extraneous information that does not appeal to us, are we becoming increasingly less patient? Are we losing faith in the view that a merger of different ideas usually leads to a better solution? Have we become too lost in our own websites and online social forms that our sense of own community has become smaller at a time when we need to tackle more of our issues as a region?

Is a new form of distrust occurring between our communities at a time when some of the historical ones were just breaking down?

Who’s Talking Now

Communications we have had on the future of the railroad, the “new direction” at the Adirondack Regional Airport and the North Country Regional Economic Development Council currently stand in stark contrast from one another. Is this necessarily a bad thing, maybe not and perhaps this is the only way that solutions can be found.

But should a forum on the future of the Adirondack Railroad that spans across the Adirondack Park, only be held in Lake Placid? What about the communities in Tupper Lake and Old Forge? Are the issues and the information at hand only related to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid or is it possible to look at facts both pro and con as a region?

On the other hand, due to personnel changes at the Adirondack Regional Airport, the Town of Harrietstown is considering a “new direction.” Before this direction is finalized, should there be a wider discussion among the community and the Tri-Lakes on this regional asset?

Finally, the North Country Regional Economic Council is seeking to develop a regional strategy for an area that is very different in terms of its economic opportunities and capabilities. Should the North Country region which comprises Plattsburgh, Watertown and the Adirondack Park come up with one plan or a set of sub regional strategies that highlights the Montréal to New York City Corridor, the St. Lawrence Valley and the Adirondack Park?

Should the Adirondack Park develop its own strategy and take it to the multiple regional councils that affect the Park - so that there is one holistic Park strategy?

Has Our Sense of Community Changed?

But what is a “region” or “community” anyways?

Certainly, a number of our political borders, towns and villages were created by geographic realities of the 19th century. They were tied to rivers, lakes, roads and railroads that made sense during that time. These “communities” were made up of diverse people including immigrants with different beliefs as well as those that were educated and uneducated. Our communities, independent and closely knit were the essential fabric of our social, economic and political way of life. Debates among various elements of our communities have always sparked our landscape.

As we have become more capable of weeding out what we feel is extraneous information and spend more time with friends or groups that share our interests, have we become less patient and is this at a lost of potentially good ideas?

There was an interesting article in National Affairs by Marc Dunkelman entitled the “The Transformation of American Community.” Here, he ponders the question if some of our dissatisfaction with government is based on the fact that our communities are changing. He talks about globalization and the “information revolution” as examples of changing our community life. They have “served to weaken ties” that kept communities in place. He argues that “By choosing to invest more time and energy in keeping in touch with our closest friends and family members, and, on the other, in trading bits of information with people we do not know very well but who share some single common interest,” this has been at the “expense” of being “internally cohesive without being particularly diverse.”

Mine, Yours or Ours?

As people create more of what I call “internal communities” are they spending less time in traditional local ways of life? Certainly, you often hear the call by community groups for the need of more volunteers or “younger blood.” Yes, there is a host of reasons for this such as the continued extraction of our youth for better job opportunities outside of the Park and others. But, how many times have I had to cajole my own children to get away from their online “community” friends and participate in local events?

“Americans today can bypass many of the relationships that we once had to maintain,” Dunkelman writes, “enabling us to double down on those we value most and also on those rooted in a single common interest.” “Why hang out with the random assortment that frequents the neighborhood pub when you can join a discussion group comprised exclusively of people who share your love of crochet?” he continues.

We are reading more and more these days of communities being formed by those with similar interests and outlooks such as those for example that want to be self-sufficient.

He talks about the “honeycombed society” of “smaller and smaller pieces, each of which is increasingly isolated from those nearby.” These factors and others have “overwhelmed the township structure” and creating in its place, a “cluster networked system.”

A Regional Neighborhood Hub?

In addition to all of this, is it also because the scale of our challenges today have outgrown the possibility that one community can fix everything that it needs to address?

From job creation to government mandates, from the railroad to the airport, can one community find an equitable solution?

Could the Tri-Lakes become a model for a new regional community? Or, will our lack of patience in the heightened speed of our information world, create new barriers? Can we create a new sense of regional community that sustainable development calls a “neighborhood hub”?

Can we become an icon of what Dunkelman refers to what others have called “emotional intelligence” that he defines as “the ability to withstand emotional impulses, build human connections, and remain focused amid distraction”?

The response by our communities to Hurricane Irene indicates that we can. We live in a fragile time both economically and environmentally. We want action and yet we want our viewpoints to be considered. It may not always be appropriate, but are the best solutions still found from the diversity of opinion? The beauty of today’s information age is that it does not always require another meeting or time consuming debate. There are plenty of other mechanisms such as what some communities are doing with “virtual town halls” and community communications centers.

It may require a change of thinking though that recognizes what we once considered our “community” has changed. We may need new definitions such as “regional neighborhood hubs” to find sustainable solutions.


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