The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The myth of community can be sustained in Brooklyn, not in Gurgaon

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A paradox of urban American life is that Americans define themselves as individuals, live and die by the doctrine of individualism, but central to their dream of the good life is the myth of community. When we moved into Park Slope, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, we were repeatedly told by our neighbours that the reason the area was desirable was because it had a vibrant community life unlike the metropolitan impersonality of Manhattan.

Some of this had to do with the architecture of Brooklyn, which is dominated by four-storey brownstones built in the late eighteen hundreds. Hi-rise buildings are, by common consent, not human scale and not hospitable to the idea of “community”; being a community, a proper neighbourhood, is easier if people live in houses with backyards even if these houses have long since been sliced into apartments.

We had a practical demonstration of what our neighbours understood by community during Halloween. We went, in time-honoured fashion, from house to house, trick-or-treating, and many families had gone to extraordinary lengths to give visiting children scary tableaus to gasp at, and sweets to chew on. There was also a huge Halloween parade on the main road, 7th Avenue, which was a genuinely community affair where the people marching and the people watching were inter-changeable because they came from the same neighbourhood. New as we were to the neighbourhood, we recognized other parents and our children found familiar kids to hail. We were reliably told that this Brooklyn parade represented community in a way that the Manhattan parade did not because in that procession across the bridge and the East River, transvestites marched and tourists watched.

It took me some time to understand that this idea of community had no connection with history or tradition or any notion of a past. If, in Lucknow or Chennai or Calcutta, you were to talk of community life, you would imply by that phrase a way of life nourished, cultivated and reproduced over years. This way of life could be made up of participatory festivity like Halloween — the organization of Puja or neighbourhood Ram Lilas — or local pastimes like kite-flying or pigeon-fancying: in either case the locality would understand without explanation the rules and rituals of the activity in question and would participate in it to lesser or greater degree.

What glued these communities together was either a sense of belonging because families had lived in particular neighbourhoods for generations, and/or a shared cultural identity. The sense of being a dilliwallah because your family has lived in Ballimarran for a hundred years defines community in the first sense of the term; an involvement in Durga Puja celebrations in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi because you are a Bengali living in a neighbourhood recently established to re-settle East Pakistan Displaced Persons, is community feeling in the second sense.

Neither meaning applies to “community” as experienced by our neighbours in Park Slope. The main difference is this: a historical or ethnic sense of community is given you; in places like Park Slope, a sense of community is self-consciously willed into existence in the here-and-now by like-minded, upwardly mobile individuals. It works like this: a young couple with children decides against the anonymous, atomized life of Manhattan. They move to cheaper, tree-lined, brownstone Brooklyn. They move there because other people like them (roughly their age with roughly 1.6 children to educate) have moved there before them and have expressed enough constructive concern and exerted enough pressure on the public schools and municipal services to create a desirable urban environment. Once they move in, they encourage their friends to move in as well which serves the double purpose of creating a critical mass of like-minded people and pushing up real estate prices which (assuming that they’ve had the sense to buy their homes) protects their investment.

How is this any different from a yuppie couple in Delhi buying an apartment in a new satellite township like Dwarka or Gurgaon' They too, after all, are making independent real-estate decisions, investing their savings, choosing an environment for their children to grow up in. The difference is that the American middle class still believes that it has a stake in public services like education, roads and utilities and, more importantly, local politics is democratic enough for this middle class’s activism to make a difference. The Indian middle class, in full retreat from corrupt and inefficient municipal governments, wholly cynical about local government’s ability to deliver services that their taxes should have paid for, buys homes to purchase security or to buy a good address, not to collectively re-make a neighbourhood in its own image.

The successful upwardly mobile couple in Delhi that buys a home in Jor Bagh or Golf Links, buys into privilege, not into a community of shared interest and ambition. Nobody in those localities invests in collective action; what purpose would it serve' The people who live in these places generate their own electricity, drill their own water, provide their own security and send their children to private schools miles away. Home in middle class Delhi is an address, not a neighbourhood.

I don’t mean to set up a comparison that talks up American yuppies at the expense of their Indian counterparts. The American ideal of community that I’m confronted with in Brooklyn is brought into being by the purchasing power of foot-loose, credit-worthy middle class people, and their ability to transform localities into “communities” made up of people-like-them. Older communities of the historical, ethnic sort, enclaves of Italians or Jews or African Americans, are steadily devoured by the appetite of these young or not-so-young professionals for real estate as they search for the perfect home. The communities they create are transient: yuppies move into neighbourhoods to raise children and then leave when the raising is done. Park Slope has very few old people: some days its pavements are taken over by young matrons pushing young children in strollers.

Still, for all their limitations, members of the American middle class create urban worlds with their own money and in their own image; their Indian counterparts, crippled by real estate values absurdly inflated by the black economy, still live out their lives in worlds inherited from their parents.

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