Have We Lost Our Sense of Community?

As I stood in conversation with the local shopkeeper, I realised that real human connection is in decline. We have sold our souls.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

As I stood in conversation with the local shopkeeper, I realised that real human connection is in decline. We have sold our souls.

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I paid a visit to a small fruit and veg shop last week in Blanchardstown village on the west side of Dublin.

It’s a fairly run-down place on the main street that's been there for as long as I can remember.

It has become a favourite with minorities in the area and locals looking for obscure foods they can’t find anywhere else. Local restaurants buy from them too.

They have chosen to focus on Asian and African foods and in this way carved a nice little niche in the face of stiff competition from big corporate food stores that are everywhere these days.

I like the place. It has a friendly local feeling that brightly lit supermarkets can’t possibly give me.

But today it was quiet and made me realise that shops like these are in decline.

The tightly knit and supportive communities of villages and towns have all but disappeared, absorbed by the sprawling metropolis and occupied by a new breed.

As such, small businesses like Justin’s Fruit & Veg don’t exist any more. The fishmonger and the butcher have gone. The baker has gone. The florist has gone.

At best they exist in isolation, one or two here and there struggling to stay afloat in the face of the corporate storm, the drive for greater efficiency.

Globalisation and industrialisation of food and services have made sure that small and local will struggle.

And we are complicit.

Complicit In Our Own Downfall

Our modern society with its constant drive for convenience has very quickly taken down the small community way of life.

In large part, you and I have chosen the convenience of the supermarket in preference to the small local shopkeeper. And in this pursuit of convenience, we can say we contribute to the downfall.

But human beings are not meant to live in vast tightly packed communities as we do. It’s impersonal and soulless and my observations tell me that it is at the core of our ever-increasing epidemic of anxiety and depression.

In contrast, when visiting the countryside it strikes me immediately how friendly and welcoming people are.

Here we have people living, in some cases, miles apart from one another, yet they know each other by name. And where they don’t, there’s always and hello or a nod or a wave.

In the city, it’s not like that.

The city is impersonal.

There’s little reason to engage with those nearby, they unnecessary to our survival. We pass each other by on the street, eyes down, rushing to and fro like robots.

Many of us don’t know our neighbours, not even to see.

We don’t depend on community support for survival — the supermarket gives us food (if you want to call it food) and the corporation for whom we work gives us a sense of community.

But it’s a pseudo community and as our density increases and we rely on technology, we ironically we become further disconnected and isolated.

Image of Blanchardstown Village with a horse drawn carriage in 1890s

Blanchardstown Village 100+ years ago

Urban Development & Cultural Decay

The old Blanchardstown village dates back to 1250 when the Blanchard Family were awarded their estate by the governing British.

The surrounding forest lands of Coolmine were once inhabited by wolves and wild boar. The local gentry used them for hunting at the time, but things are different now.

Like many historic townlands, it fell foul to the so-called progress of urban development which began in the 1960s.

Now, many of the world’s big technology companies have taken up shop in the surrounding lands. The landscape which was once a mixture of dense forest and open farmland is now dense with commercial buildings, office blocks and data centres.

Maybe that has all come about because I’ve chosen to own a Mac and an iPhone.

Makes me think…

Historically significant towns like Blanchardstown and Fingals have been subject to the decay brought about by the modern way of life. It’s like we’re killing ourselves from the inside out.

Local councils seem not to take into account the importance of maintaining the integrity of these disappearing townlands and it seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Councils seem fine with bulldozing, for the sake of corporations, traffic, jobs and development, that which has been built by generations of local people.

Hand-built stone walls, 100-year-old trees, country roads, ancient buildings and wildlife are all sacrificed for the sake of roads.

Well, would you blame them?

After all, a boost to local tax income, jobs for the dependant and mentally castrated public, and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with international business people and banks do wonders for the prospects of local politicians.

I accept that things must move on and people, as they are, need jobs. However, our development as a society over the last 100 years has not been progress.

It is a destruction of something important to our culture.

In my view, therefore, we’ve gone backwards.

Some Light Conversation With The Local Shopkeeper

Anyway, I started talking about Justin’s…

There’s a bloke that sits behind the counter and although he couldn’t be any more than his early 50’s, he seems older to me. He and this shop look out of place in this time of the highly polished retail experience designed to extract dollars from my pocket.

It was early and the place was empty when I arrived.

Meanwhile, the cars were sitting in heavy traffic all along the main street heading for the local shopping centre built around 1996.

The adjacent dual carriageway was also jammers with cars. In fact, I hadn’t seen the traffic that bad in the areas for a long time.

I later found out it was because all the retailers in the shopping centre were running a massive sale over the weekend.

The local shopkeeper and I had a little small talk.

He told me he was on the road at 6 am to do a pick up in Wicklow, then drove back to Dublin open up the shop.

He told me how he watched the winter sunrise above the Wicklow hills just before 7 am and how beautiful he thought it was.

I’ve witnessed scenes like that occasionally on the road to South County Dublin. The sun is quite spectacular as it rises, especially when there are little or no clouds in the sky.

As he spoke I couldn’t help but feel that this kind of place and this kind of conversation are not commonplace anymore.

Who’s going to run this place when he’s gone?

Who will think it worthwhile enough to maintain?

The paint is peeling off the front sign. The front yard is cluttered and disorganised. The small car park is rough and potholed and the general condition of the place is poor.

I can understand why many of the locals favour pretty supermarkets.

It’s all optics though.

Are We Losing Out?

People and businesses and the ideas that birth them come and go. The survival of those ideas is dependant on whether the rest of us resonate with them enough to keep them going.

That’s what a business is, an idea, and that idea constantly changes.

The people in the business change, stock on the shelves changes, even the buildings that house the business change, sometimes completely.

Behind all of that is the idea or the concept. If that idea falls out of favour with the general buying public then it dies.

When people stop noticing it, stop putting energy into it then it disappears.

Right now in our society, the masses are putting their energy into ideas that promise a simpler life. Ironically, in the pursuit of that simpler life, those ideas actually keep us from it.

In the process, the most valuable things like the small passing conversation with the local shopkeeper, are lost.

Supermarkets are purely transactional places hell-bent on profit and no time for a conversation about the sunrise over the Wicklow mountains and that’s a pity.

We are pass by the door of small scale local businesses and deprive ourselves of human contact. We prefer to sit in traffic with other drivers to avail of Black Friday discounts than the prospect of connecting with another human being.

Maybe there’s a benefit somewhere although sometimes it’s hard to find it.

I think humanity is on the cusp of a massive correction. What we see at a local level is a sure sign of that for me.

What About Work?

I want to highlight something before I wrap this up.

There is a relationship between the decline of communities and small local shops to the nature of how we work.

In the same way that we flood through the front doors of global corporates to spend our wages, we flood through their back doors to earn those wages.

Few of us want to start a small local enterprise. We seem to be conditioned to think we need others to give us a job.

Our entire society is built on the premise that we must go through the assembly line of education and employment all the way to retirement, and in the process, we fulfil our duty.

Throughout our lives, we live with the idea that self-worth and societal-worth are connected to the job we do.

The unfortunate fact is that the majority of us have been completely sold on this idea of bigger is better and we act it out unconsciously at the expense of the local shopkeeper and ourselves.

You could say we’re like the farmer in the story of the golden goose, and like the farmer, we won’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Maybe there’s a way back, or maybe we have some learning to do before we figure it out.

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