David Phillips: National Night Out helps us know each other, because it’s not a given

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

You wouldn’t think small towns would need to participate in the annual National Night Out, an annual event across the nation to bring neighbors together to foster a true sense of community. After all, small towns have always been known as true communities where supposedly everyone already knows everyone else.

Yet, most of the small towns in our area, and even some neighborhoods within these towns, took part in National Night Out on Tuesday, Aug. 6. It’s always good to have a party, so to speak, a reason to celebrate while creating positive community interaction, including law enforcement and emergency management personnel who joined in several of the events.

But, there is another beneficial aspect to it: People don’t always know their neighbors, even in small towns, which today don’t quite fit the mythical vision that has been perpetuated through time.

Yes, small towns in our area are still close-knit, yet the totality of that cohesiveness may be more in our memories than in actuality.

We’ve all chuckled at those lists that claim “20 signs you grew up in a small town.” Yet many of the items on those lists — such as if a small town resident calls a wrong number, the person on the other end would politely give the caller the correct number for the person he was trying to reach — don’t hold true anymore. For one thing, in the case of the wrong number example, many homes, even in small towns, don’t have landlines, meaning homes aren’t necessarily the center of our hometowns these days.

In fact, some people’s homes are merely bedrooms to spend the nights as the job market now takes the majority of people in area small towns outside the community to work. That means many people spend more time on the road and in another city each week than in the community in which they have a home.

Even people who spend time in their homes aren’t always there for their community. Some can find isolation within the home. Technology has made it easy to disconnect from the surrounding community as the majority of small town residents now have access to modern communications such as cable TV and the internet.

People camping out in front of the television set to stew about national politics through cable news may know more, and care more, about what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just one of 535 members in the House of Representatives, is saying than the opinions of the local mayor, one of five locally elected people of a body that decides issues having a significant impact on local residents.

Others may camp out in front of a computer, interacting with virtual friends, many who want them to validate their political views, rather than stepping outside to visit real friends in the community.

People in small towns aren’t isolated from the nation’s ills anymore, if they really ever were that sheltered. For example, small town residents are equally likely to face significant problems as urban residents when their communities are economically distressed. That’s one reason why the opioid epidemic devastated some small towns in Appalachia and other rural areas of the country in recent years.

And, small towns aren’t immune to despair. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the past two decades shows that rural counties consistently had higher rates of suicide than metropolitan counties.

These observations aren’t meant to paint a bleak picture of life in small communities. We all know there is much satisfaction in living in a place where the scale is smaller and personal connections are stronger.

However, a small town isn’t automatically a haven for happiness. It isn’t a given that all small towns have a strong social network in which residents find that sense of belonging.

It takes purpose and effort to make a collection of households a true community in a world where economic forces, technology and social trends make that simple concept harder to achieve, even for our idealized small towns. National Night Out is one building block that helps create strong, inclusive communities of caring neighbors.

As one local organizer pointed out, there is a simple reason she helped to get her neighborhood residents together last week: “We need to know each other.”