Neighbors Seek the Ties That Bind

Despite reports of increasing isolation, Americans are are finding common ground in small groups

Meg Ross and her husband, Peter Shinkle, both lean into the back seat of their car to perform dueling car-seat strap-ins for their two children. As Ms. Ross disengages herself, careful not to rumple her evening attire, she suddenly remembers to ask her husband a key question: "Did you remember the poker chips?"

Despite the recent influx of legalized gambling in Louisiana's capital city, the couple is not heading off to the local casinos. They are due at a fundraiser and are taking advantage of the Babysitting Group, which allows members to call on each other for babysitting services. Parents pay one poker chip per half-hour of babysitting per child.

"It's funny that we chose poker chips for our currency, because in many ways this group feels a lot less risky than calling in a high school kid or professional service to care for our kids," Ross explains. "The parents are friends, the kids are playmates - it's a real community with all the built-in accountability and safeguards."

With family far away and jobs eating into free time, the Shinkle-Rosses and many others across the country are looking for new ways to make connections that will help them build a community. Concerned about the lack of traditional ties in their life, they are increasingly turning to small co-ops and clubs to fill in the gaps. Overall numbers are hard to track, but many observers say such grass-roots groups are clearly on the rise.

For Ross and Shinkle, the Babysitting Group has spilled into membership in a monthly book club and a triweekly vegetarian cooking cooperative. Others gravitate toward quilting groups, walking clubs, music associations, and community gardens.

Distinct from self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and mass-membership organizations like the American Association of Retired Persons, these associations bubble forth from within the community according to common needs and common strengths.

According to Elizabeth Long, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, Americans want more small-scale connections. "People fear that between mass organizations and the lonely individual, there's going to be nothing," says Dr. Long, who has studied women's book groups. When she first started her research, Long knew of just five or six groups in Houston. Now she can point to more than 100.

In addition to the discussion that centers around, for instance, a selected book, these groups offer women support in negotiating life issues, Long says. "Talk at the beginning and the end focuses on ... what's happening to kids' lives or their own lives."

Such groups defy what Harvard professor Robert Putnam last year labeled the "bowling alone" phenomenon. Dr. Putnam sparked debate from the White House to Main Street when he charged that Americans were turning inward, increasingly rejecting groups of any kind.

Citing statistics from the General Social Survey, put out by the Roper Center for Public Opinion, Putnam notes that overall group membership has declined roughly 25 percent since 1974.

That assessment doesn't jibe with what Patty Buck sees. Ms. Buck and a group of nine colleagues working at a Jackson, N.J., school for emotionally disturbed and handicapped children come together four days a week for a quilting group. "I worked with these women every day at the school and I kind of knew them," says Buck, a physical therapist. But through the quilting group, I learned about them in a way I hadn't been able to after 10 years of working together."

Buck started her quilting group with the goal of creating a quilt the women could sell to make money to buy Christmas gifts for the kids. They raised $400,000 and are still sewing.

"We've now spilled over into gardening," Buck says. "I wrote a letter that resulted in a donation to the school of 60 rose bushes. How was I going to plant 60 rose bushes? I got the quilters together and we did it," she said. The women have now started a vegetable garden at the school.

The same kind of camaraderie flourishes in Jean Dirksen's walking group. One of six Augusta, Ga., women who join up en route, Dirksen asserts: "We get the problems of the world solved as we walk."

From the O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson trials to Studs Terkel's "Coming of Age" and Betty Friedan's book on the same topic, the walkers expound on right, wrong, and daily ups and downs.

"We're downsizing ourselves so much these days: Cutbacks at work are so severe that one person now does what three used to," says Ron Cook, product manager for Walking Magazine. "Walking groups allow people to enjoy quality time with their neighbors or family...."

Walking magazine's Walking Club Alliance has a database of around 900 to 1,000 walking clubs of all sorts across the country. "Certainly walking as a group activity has grown as more people see it as an activity in which they can participate socially and also get some health benefits," Mr. Cook says.

But while many observers see such groups as a positive development, others question just how much they contribute to community development. Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Communitarian Network, a group arguing for the balance of community responsibility with individual rights, and a professor at George Washington University in Washington, sees self-enrichment groups as a good first step toward bolstering a feeling of community.

But in addition, he says, he wants groups with a definite moral engine, such as clinics that help the homeless.

Participants in a variety of groups defend their associations as launching pads for social interaction that often make a more widely based contribution.

Brian Lease, Community Gardens Coordinator for the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), views community gardens as an antidote to a society where everyone drives to work, works hard, and lives fenced off from neighbors. In a typical community garden, individuals tend to their own plots, but also come together for shared projects.

"If something goes wrong in your neighborhood, you don't feel like you're surrounded by strangers," Mr. Lease says. By talking about gardening, people have an entry into discussions of other neighborhood issues, Lease explains.

These benefits in part may explain the recent popularity of these shared spaces: SLUG has more than tripled its budget this year, and Lease has seen tremendous growth all over the country in new community-garden organizations.

For Maggie Heyn, director of a national service corps in Baton Rouge, the shared aspect of her community garden has come to be as valuable as the actual gardening. "People are so boundaried these days; it's fun to have a place where you're free to roam in other people's plots," she said. Advice is plentiful, she added, along with surplus seeds, seedlings and harvested crops, which the gardeners organize and give to the local food bank.

For Julian Colescott, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, his music group serves as his primary connection to year-round residents of Laramie. All his other friends are students, Mr. Colescott says, and that makes his life feel more transient.

"No one comes to Laramie to live here," Colescott says. "Through the music group, I've met a bunch of older, local musicians - really good musicians who have been playing a long time," he says.

Colescott plays the dulcimer, and the core group also includes three guitars, three mandolins, and a washtub base.

At their next session, the group will attempt a Bill Stains song called "My Sweet Wyoming Home." The lyrics are longing: "There's a silence on the prairie that you just can't help but feel; there's a shadow growing longer now, nipping at my heels, I know that soon that old four-lane that runs beneath my wheels will take me home to my sweet Wyoming home."

Through his music group, Colescott has tapped into the rhythm of his local community. Maybe he has found his sweet Wyoming home.

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