Putnam’s “E Pluribus Unum”: Part of the Story

A few weeks ago I had the chance to spend a weekend on a tiny island in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay that has just enough room for 700 year-round residents.

Maybe it was because I knew a few people there, but I really felt at ease in that environment. It wasn’t just that people waved to each other in the streets; it was the fact that everyone had a shared history and common culture.

As you might have guessed, I’m glomming on to the collective-efficacy discussion that’s been ongoing on Rooflines. I’m of two minds about Robert Putnam’s finding that people in less diverse places are better at getting together to improve their communities.

On the one hand, I’ve lived in some incredibly diverse neighborhoods, and in at least one of them the level of community activism was sky-high. It takes a lot of constant organizing, grassroots planning, and careful development, but people definitely work together closely across the barriers of race and income.

And the community where I live now, which is about as homogeneous as can be, isn’t exactly a hotbed of community participation. People support community improvement through their churches and by giving to the locally owned radio station, but often when someone tries to do something substantial to make positive change, they are viewed with suspicion.

On the other hand, on that speck of an island in the middle of the bay, people cooperate and get things done because there is no alternative. There are virtually no economic resources on the island, so people depend on each other to be able to stay there. They need help getting library books, groceries, or finding a plumber. Community involvement flows naturally from this dependence.

A lot of communities and neighborhoods are like islands. They are cut off from their neighbors by mountain ranges, highways, railroads, even parks. Think of these physical barriers as a good thing, for once. They force people to come together.

What I am trying to say is that there is no foolproof model for strong communities. Obviously dialogue, a great deal of it, is essential. But I wouldn’t say that race and income and other sorts of cultural diversity are necessarily better or worse or a decisive factor.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Holtzman is right on here. Obviously, there’s no magic potion for community involvement, but dialogue is a great place to start. It also helps to have a willing local government as well — one that reflects the interests of the community.


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