Community: Local and National

In the old days one could pretty much account for what happened to a person by knowing the events that took place within the boundaries of his village. Today the scope of the American "community", in the sense of all that we need to know in order to understand what happens to an American, is enormously larger. The once dominating rural community has given way not merely to the urban community, but to the metropolitan community; in 1950 nearly three-fifths of the American population had become dwellers in large cities and suburban areas, the so-termed "standard metropolitan areas."1) From 1940 to 1950 half of the national population growth occurred in suburbs, that is, within the metropolitan area but outside the central cities.2) Life in suburbs was once a privilege for relatively well-off families, but the suburbs built after World War II were planned to suit the great masses. Houses in any one suburban neighborhood are alike in appearance, price, and they appeal to specific occupational and income brackets. Hence, each income class tends to live in a kind of residential segregation. Since no immediate neighbor is much better off, class envy is kept at a minimum. Instead, a friendly competition is waged with oneís neighbors in terms of consumer goods, gardening, participation in voluntary associations, charity contributions, et cetera; a competition in which no one has any great initial advantages or handicap. A part of this pattern is that Americans may be likely to move to another neighborhood if their income improves beyond the typical range in their present neighborhood.

The suburban life, of course, presupposes that the husband commutes (usually by car) to nearby cities or industrial sites. This means not only that the suburbs are void of menfolk during most of the day, but, more important, that family income is likely to be earned in one municipality and be spent in another. This system puts considerable strain on local self-government and municipal finance. More strain can be expected if the forecast comes true that suburban developments will make one almost continuous built-up area from Boston to Washington (a "megalopolis"). It is perhaps conceivable that in the future the traditional divisions of states and counties will become mostly historical and sentimental divisions with which people identify, and that the effective administrative units will become larger and have borders embracing areas whose problems require a common solution.

Thus, as the city with its hinterland succeeded the rural village as the dominating American community, so even larger units are succeeding. The days are gone when one could hope to know America by studying its Middle-town. Today events in Pittsburgh may have as much effect in Detroit as in Pittsburgh, and events in New York may have as much effect in Chicago or Los Angeles as in New York. A modicum of a national community has developed. A greater share of the important decisions and issues have become national ones. Even the machinery for developing the knowledge on which decisions and debates are based has broken its local molds and become national. Writing in 1947, Robert S. Allen noted that in the preceding two decades 1,000 daily newspapers had disappeared and that six large chains of newspapers controlled about half of the countryís daily circulation.3) By 1954 another 1,200 newspapers had disappeared, leaving 3,400.4) The similar concentration of radio and TV stations into a few national networks is well known.

The emerging national community is not merely united by adherence to the common American creed of patriotism, equality and freedom. Most Americans can name a relative, a former classmate, or a neighbor who is in a very different walk of life: someone who is very rich or someone who is very poor, someone of a different religious denomination, someone with a different party affiliation, someone in the West, someone in the South, someone in private business, someone in government service, someone who belongs to a union, someone who pursues an artistic career, etc. Almost everybody is part of the network of personal or family bonds spanning the social structure. The exact extent of this phenomenon, strangely enough, has not yet been studied to the point where it can be shown in a statistical table, but there is evidence enough to warrant the assumption that these bonds of personal and family loyalty serve to tie the complex national community together.

The multitude of links that the modern American seems to have with others who are different from him also serve to restrain him from being too partisan. The wide spread represented by an individualís numerous loyalties to different persons is perhaps the basis in the social structure for the strong desire to "get along" with people, a dominant character trait of the American of today.


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1) Infra, Table 88

2) Conrad Taeuber and Irene B. Taeuber, The Changing Population of the United States, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1958, p. 133.

3) Robert S. Mien, Our Fair City, Vanguard Press, New York, 1947, pp. 12-13.

4) lnfra, Table 90