Neighborhood Games as a Community-Building Strategy

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  • This article was downloaded by: [York University Libraries]On: 21 November 2014, At: 17:21Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Journal of Community PracticePublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wcom20

    Neighborhood Games as aCommunity-Building StrategyBill Berkowitz PhD aa Department of Psychology , University ofMassachusetts Lowell , 870Broadway Street, Suite#1, Lowell , MA , 01854 , USA E-mail:Published online: 22 Sep 2008.

    To cite this article: Bill Berkowitz PhD (2003) Neighborhood Games as a Community-Building Strategy, Journal of Community Practice, 11:3, 35-53

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J125v11n03_03

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  • Neighborhood Gamesas a Community-Building Strategy

    Bill Berkowitz, PhD

    ABSTRACT. This paper discusses the use of neighborhood games andcontests as an alternative approach to community building, and as a com-plement to traditional issue or interest organizing. It places these activi-ties within the broader contexts of celebration and festivity, noting therelative lack of such events within modern American secular culture.The planning, implementation, and results of two neighborhood-widegames and contests are then described, as carried out in a representativesuburban neighborhood. Though full and accurate evaluation is chal-lenging, the community-building promise of these activities is docu-mented. The prospects for future development and use of similarcommunity events are then considered. [Article copies available for a feefrom The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: 2003by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

    KEYWORDS. Celebrations, community building, community organi-zation, contests, games, neighborhoods

    The benefits of strong and supportive local community life have bynow been well established. Cohesive neighborhoods and communitiesare associated with, for example, better physical health, greater emo-

    Bill Berkowitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology at the Department ofPsychology, 870 Broadway Street, Suite #1, University of Massachusetts Lowell,Lowell, MA 01854 (E-mail: Bill_Berkowitz@uml.edu).

    Journal of Community Practice, Vol. 11(3) 2003http://www.haworthpress.com/web/COM

    2003 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.Digital Object Identifier: 10.1300/J125v11n03_03 35

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  • tional well-being, lower crime rates, and improved outcomes for chil-dren (e.g., Putnam, 2000). A key question for community practitionersis how those supportive and cohesive local settings can best comeabout. A likely answer is that a variety of community-building ap-proaches is called for.

    This paper focuses on a relatively overlooked approach in modern com-munity practicethe design and implementation of neighborhood-basedcelebratory events. The nature and advantages of this approach may becomeclearer by first comparing it with other community-building strategies.

    TRADITIONAL STRATEGIES

    Issue-Based Approaches

    A traditional and often essential community-building approach isbased upon addressing local community issues. Sometimes an issue isimmediately and dramatically apparent; other times it is chosen fromamong different reported community needs. Typically, a plan is thencreated to resolve the issue and generate community benefits. Partici-pants to implement the plan are next recruited, publicity is generated,funding is solicited, planned actions are taken, and the outcomes areevaluated. If the desired results are obtained, community capacity, com-munity identity, and community relationships may all be strengthened.

    An issue-oriented approach can be highly effective as long as salientissues can be found. But in many communities and neighborhoods, nosuch issues may be present. This may be true in particular for many sub-urban communitiesthe type of community in which, according to de-mographers, about 55% of the U.S. population lives.

    Consider a prototypical suburb: the homes are well maintained; thestreets are peaceful and quiet; the neighborhoods are relatively safe; theschools are moderately good; the services are generally effective; and resi-dents seem happy enough to be where they are. Visible issues, though, maybe absentthat is, local issues perceived and articulated with emotion by adiscernible resident core. Though hard data are lacking, this situation mayhold true for the majority of suburban communities and for numerous othercommunities and neighborhoods at any given point in time.

    Interest-Based Approaches

    Another strategy in building community is to organize around com-mon interests. These interests may be vocational, avocational, recre-

    36 JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PRACTICE

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  • ational, educational, spiritual, or purely social. Parishioners, forexample, have a common interest in their church. Parents have a com-mon interest in the education of their children. Other residents may joinaround common interests in politics or reading, gardening or softball.

    Organizing around interests is convenient and feasible when infor-mal community ties are strong, or when there are existing organiza-tional structures through which these interests can be expressed andsharedthe church, the school, the garden club, the softball league. Butwhen those structures are weak, or lacking altogether, and especiallywhen community cohesion is low to begin with, interest organizing be-comes less effective. Its harder for people to associate because thereare no easy ways to know what common interests are, or where to findlike-minded people. If someone wanted to start (or join) a meditationgroup, or poker game, or food-buying club, where would that person be-gin?

    To facilitate bringing people together around interests, some recentattention has been given to the proactive and systematic collection of in-terest data, along with and the formation of interest-group structures,among community residents through capacity inventories, asset surveys,and similar means. Kretzmann, McKnight, and colleagues (Kretzmann,McKnight, & Puntenney, 1998; Kretzmann, McKnight, & Sheehan,1997) describe several practical techniques for doing so; they provideseveral interest and asset collection forms, and offer detailed case ex-amples. Suggestions for creating institutional structures to maintain in-terest and skill sharing are set forth as well.

    But while the intent of these initiatives may be laudable, the evidencethat actual collection of such data has produced specific and sustainedresults sufficient to justify the effort is less well documented. This isprobably because there are multiple challenges to using interest data incommunity practice. First, some person or group, quite possibly unpaid,must be willing to undertake the data collection effort. Second, thosebeing surveyed must be willing to reveal their interests or skills to (mostlikely) relative strangers. Third, the respondents must be willing for thatpersonal information to become public, or semi-public. Fourth, provi-sions must next be made for distribution of that information throughoutthe target area, so that it is easily accessible to all. Fifth, residents mustthen feel comfortable both in initiating contacts with people they dontknow, and responding sympathetically to others requests as well.Finally, some person or group, either the initiators or others, must con-tinually maintain and update the database and its underlying organiza-tional structure.

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  • These natural and understandable challenges can at least partly beovercome by starting on a small scale, developing group trust, and grad-ually building upon initial success. Interest-based organizing can yieldvaluable and long-lasting results; still, at present, it is not entirely sur-prising that reports of successful, comprehensive, and long-lasting in-terest or skill-sharing systems are hard to find.

    AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH:THE ROLE OF CELEBRATORY EVENTS

    There is a different route to building strong neighborhood and com-munity ties, however, one that goes beyond issues and beyond common in-terests. It is based upon neighborhood- or community-wide eventseventsthat are intentionally created, typically open to all, with little or no cost, butthat provide benefits for everyone taking part. Some of these events aretask oriented (as in clean-ups, or construction); others are festive, ourmain focus here. Block parties are a well-known example of that lattercategory. In such events, somebody decides to take the lead. Flyers aredistributed. Neighbors show up. They eat, drink, socialize, and enjoythemselves. Rarely does one report having a bad time at a block party.These events add to community life; they have no apparent downsides;we ought to have more of them.

    But they have limitations. For while block parties (and their near rela-tions) are pleasant social events, they tend to be conventional and re-strained. They stay within the bounds of the ordinary; they arentmemorable. They are less effective in instilling a communal neighbor-hood consciousness, or, to extend the point, a sense of unity among resi-dents and a transcendence of self. They are not celebratory, in that fullersense of the word, if that were to be a valued quality in community living.And perhaps it should be. Writing a generation ago, the theologianHarvey Cox argued:

    Mankind has paid a frightful price for the present opulence ofWestern industrial society . . . He has purchased prosperity at thecost of a staggering impoverishment of the vital elements of hislife. These elements are festivitythe capacity for genuine revelryand joyous celebration, and fantasythe faculty for envisioningradically alternative life situations. (Cox, 1969, p. 7, italics inoriginal)

    38 JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PRACTICE

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  • Coxs claim has historical support. Celebratory events reach back tothe very beginning of recorded historyand perhaps well before, sincethe noted historian Johan Huizinga tells us Play is older than culture(Huizinga, 1970, p. 19). We can find examples in the festivals and ban-quets of ancient Mesopotamia (Nemat-Nejat, 1998) or in the DragonBoat festivals of China, dating back over 2000 years (Wolf, 1996). Thehistory of Western civilization is filled with accounts of festivals andcelebrations, ranging from the temple festivals of Athenian Greece andcontinuing through the pageants, mumming, and maypole dancing oflate medieval and Renaissance times (cf. Auguet, 1975). Early Englishcountry life, at least through the Industrial Revolution, was marked bynumerous festival days and communal holidays, some lasting up to twoweeks; for many of our pre-industrial ancestors, work and play blendedwith relative ease (Rybczynski, 1991, Ch. 5).

    American society, with its Calvinist and Puritan roots, developed dif-ferently. Few rites and ceremonies punctuated the weeks and months todistract settlers from the hardship of daily life, notes one historian ofearly America (Hawke, 1988, p. 91). The early settlers had arrived with arich heritage of local holidays, fairs, and games from their native villagesand regions; but much of that heritage vanished in America (ibid.). Tothis day, we have relatively few festive or celebratory events in modernAmerican secular society, fewer in most American neighborhoods, andcertainly few in the American suburbs (cf. Berkowitz, 1996; Santino,1994). Instead, we have a paucity of public rituals and traditions, a short-age of collective activities, a lack of occasions for neighbors simply tocome together, much less to engage in joyous celebration or revelry.

    Compare this, for example, to an event such as Carnival in Brazil,where the performing samba schools are largely neighborhood based,and which is characterized by parades, floats, drumming, nonstop mu-sic, masks, make-up and costumes (for onlookers, as well as marchers),thematic social commentary, pulsating noise, all-night dancing, andgeneralized abandon, along with the capacity for sustained episodes ofintense unambivalent joy (Guillermoprieto, 1990, p. 195). One mightmake a case for the creation of more such events on a local level, suit-ably adapted, minus the drunkenness, drug use, and petty crime, as acatalyst to neighborhood identity, communality, and pride.

    Occasional related, if somewhat toned-down, events do exist inAmerican culture; public Fourth of July and New Years Eve celebra-tions are two common instances, though these often take place on met-ropolitan or regional scales. In addition, every so often, an externaltriumph may trigger large-scale festive outpourings. For example, after

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  • the New England Patriots became surprise victors in footballs 2002Super Bowl, a celebration two days later at Bostons City Hall Plazadrew an estimated 1.25 million people in the middle of a mid-winterwork day. What was striking about this event was not only the crowdsizeroughly twice the population of the entire citybut the extent towhich, according to hometown commentators,...