It's Not All About Science, It's Also About People: Lessons From Jamaica Plain

Imagine a place where community is the central theme. A town where people may not all have advanced degrees, but collectively work toward sustainable living. I'm not talking about the stereotyped hippiedom of the 70's, but action through practical informed decisions. Streets where bikes seem to outnumber cars, community gardens are lush and shared, and citizens figure out ways to limit wasting power and resources.

i-07150f6a996d1a1a5289fd3b673d66b5-JPBellaLuna.jpgI arrived in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (JP) on my favorite day of the month here: First Thursday. It's part of Boston, though not your typical 'yuppie' branded college neighborhood. (That crowd generally opts to choose areas without the crime rate JP is also known for). When you walk down Centre Street, you notice everyone seems to know one other. They actively support local businesses and there is collective pressure to work to achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Sweatshop free t-shirts reflect themes of conservation and equality. Mind you, this is part of the same city that boasts Newbury St.

And here's the thing.. in this neighborhood folks clearly care about the environment. While the average citizen probably doesn't understand all the science and statistics involved in global temperature rise, JP is an extremely progressive place because people live a lifestyle that matters. And definitely not out of privilege or affordability, but rather because it's ingrained into social norms and expectations.

Maybe much of the answer to climate problems can be mitigated by fostering community - shifting perspective from an 'I' to a 'We' mentality. This of course, is not a new idea. Political scientists like Elinor Ostrom and social anthropologists like James Acheson have written about it for decades. Generally small homogeneous groups with a strong sense of community have the highest likelihood of cooperating to achieve collective action.

What's striking about JP is it's a place that's really part of a much bigger city. And while people sure aren't homogeneous, they are getting it right. Community is a central theme and collective action has resulted in a shared recognition of and shift toward conservation in practice.

Which begs the question, how do we move past JP?

A few great local links here, here, and here. And with that, I'm off to Maine..

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Ummm, you're kidding, right? Thousands of doctors and mutual fund managers who have driven up housing prices and driven out the blue-collar families who used to live there? All of it dependent on proximity to Fidelity and a gigantic hospital complex? How exactly do "people live a lifestyle that matters" any more than in, say, Somerville?

Frankly, the place isn't even competitive with Somerville on annoying hipsterism or with Cambridge on consumerism (JP's restaurants are awful and even JP Licks doesn't compare to Christina's or Toscanini) and it only has a slight edge in pomposity.

OK, a decent place to live if you've got the money and don't want to commute, but get a grip!

I'm writing now from atop Rockview St.. just blocks from where Wake Up The Earth takes place every Spring and the Lantern Parade brings folks together in the name of unity to appreciate the natural world. While I don't naively imagine some utopia where socio-cultural-economic factors are balanced, JP is a great example of a community that cares and acts; a neighborhood motivated to work toward living by the principles they advocate. No, it's not perfect - but the strong sense of community combined with transition beyond mere lip service to environmentalism is something worth promoting and adopting beyond JP.

By Sheril R. Kirs… (not verified) on 03 Aug 2007 #permalink

Sheril,

I was going to criticize the naive "progressive utopianism" of your post but after the savaging you just received from JSinger I feel kind'a bad for you.

You are just trying to express the same youthful exuberant admiration many people share for socialist thought. The problem with the whole thing is that it has to be imposed on others and therefor almost invariably leads to totalitarianism.

If some think I am mischaracterizing the political nature of your post I would point out that you used the words "collective" or "collectively" four times, and "community" five times. Then you threw in "extremely progressive" and "shifting perspective from an 'I' to a 'We' mentality" just to drive the point home.

I respect the altruistic nature of your view of this way of living. I just hope you also respect those of us that don't want it imposed upon us.

I prefer an individualistic "community" where the freedom of the individual is the paramount principle upon which all our interactions are premised. I belief that is the model upon which this country, the United States of America, was founded.

If a group of people wish to limit their individual freedoms in the name of collective action that is fine, so long as they don't try to impose their "collective" forcibly onto others.

Hi Sheril,
I never comment on blogs, but want you to know I'm so glad you have chosen to highlight our JP neighborhood as progressive. What you wrote reflects many of the reasons I continue to live here. In response to JSinger, I'm not a doctor or mutual fund manager, I'm a public school teacher.
Thank you.

hmm, funny that people seem in some way threatened by JP (first the Cambridge post, then the totalatarianism one). Speaking from first hand experience people are actually drawn to JP because of the sense of community, not because it is thrust upon them. And while displacement/gentrification is indeed is a problem here we also have more community organizations per capita working to stop that trend that happens in so many other neighborhoods, like Cambridge. The difference between JP and many other gentrifying neighborhoods is that people plant roots here and invest in their community for the long haul, and i'm one of them.
-Jen, a longtime JP resident

Having visited Jamaica Plain many times, I can see for myself the daily example of what you write. People do pull together and look out for each other, and really seem to care. Very refreshing and admirable in todays general atmosphere.

Here I am, in my 60s, reading the words of bright people in their 20s, and wondering what kind of leadership they will bring to the world of my grandchildren.

Sheril sees community; Lance sees Communism

Sheril sees social bonds; Lance sees Socialism

Sheril finds hopefulness; Lance finds ideology

It's not the left/right polarization that distinguishes them for me. It's that Sheril seems to view politics through the lens of humanity, while Lance seems to view politics through the lens of ideology.

I appreciate the passion of both. But Sheril's approach lifts my spirits, while Lance's approach makes me sad.

The problem with the whole thing is that it has to be imposed on others and therefor almost invariably leads to totalitarianism.

Fiddlesticks Lance.. by no stretch of the imagination did I purport totalitarianism. Now since I realize you read the post carefully counting words, you know I don't suggest such nonsense.

I prefer an individualistic "community" where the freedom of the individual is the paramount principle upon which all our interactions are premised.

Freedom is of paramount importance to me, though I also acknowledge that with increasing demand on natural resources that are not infinite, a collective shift in behavior is the best chance we have at solving environmental problems.

If a group of people wish to limit their individual freedoms in the name of collective action that is fine, so long as they don't try to impose their "collective" forcibly onto others.

Impose, no. But it's my hope that folks will continue recognizing individual choices matter with regard to our future.

By Sheril R. Kirs… (not verified) on 03 Aug 2007 #permalink

I live about three blocks from that mural. Enjoy your stay, Sheril!

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 04 Aug 2007 #permalink

I applaud your intelligent sensibility Dr. Bortz, and I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Fred,

What is "sad" about wanting to live in world where other people's choices are not forced upon you? I think we live in a country whose greatness is a direct result of the protection of the "individual liberties" of its citizens. I simply want to continue that protection.

Sheril,

If you and others wish to limit your use of fossil fuels, purchase carbon offsets, mount solar panels on your homes, plant community gardens, etc. that is fine by me. Now what I do have a problem with is imposing restrictions on the choices of others when there is no direct effect of their choices on you.

A recent discussion I had with a few of my fellow physicists at the unviversity where I work illustrates my point.

They were moralizing about the need for the federal government to mandate that automobile companies produce more hybrid vehicles to help "save the planet". When I mentioned that two of the three had purchased new vehicles in the last year and neither had purchased a hybrid they bristled that they had "good reasons" for purchasing their nonhybrid vehicles; one a high powered sports car the other a large van. One wonders what these "good reasons" were that were more important than "saving the planet".

They still insisted that "other people" should be compelled to produce these vehicles which they found unappealling and that "other people" should be compelled to purchase them.

This "other people should" issue is where our two philosophies diverge.

Now lest you infer from this that I am some anti-social survivalist let me say that I also live in a small community where the residents are concerned with each other and the community as a whole. We just place a stronger emphasis on making sure our communal actions don't interfere with the private rights of our neighbors.

That is why I, and others who share my prefered way of life, are highly suspicious of sweeping intergovernmental proposals to impose choices upon us based on scientifically dubious theories.

Lance,
What is "sad" about wanting to live in world where other people's choices are not forced upon you? I think we live in a country whose greatness is a direct result of the protection of the "individual liberties" of its citizens. I simply want to continue that protection.

Nothing sad about that or your passion for it.

What I see as sad is that you assumed that Sheril was advocating an ideology rather than reflecting on the good things that can happen when people foster a community ethic. She wrote:

Maybe much of the answer to climate problems can be mitigated by fostering community - shifting perspective from an 'I' to a 'We' mentality. This of course, is not a new idea.

Recognizing that we are all in this together can lead to individuals who make choices from the perspective of community--no coercion needed.

Sheril was commenting on community and you immediately saw Communist totalitarianism. That's what is so sad to me.