The New Culture of Renewal It's Neither Liberal nor Conservative; nor Is It Self-Absorbed. It's Reaching across Traditional Lines to Take Part in and Improve a Community

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A YEAR ago, a group of Riverside, Calif., citizens, working with the county's school districts, concluded that the way to improve education was not to reform schools, but to reform the community.

This group included conservatives, liberals, educators, a building contractor, an insurance agent (and self-described survivor of the 1960s), and a feminist activist in her 70s. On some issues, they had agreed to disagree. But they had found their common cause: the renewal of community.

Today, with a mix of public and private money, they are busy creating family centers, undertaking neighborhood crime-prevention efforts, and forming senior volunteer programs in the schools.

Groups like this seem to have multiplied dramatically within the past four or five years. This growth doesn't fit the cosmology of despair or the current political-cultural spectrum; and the participants lack a hook on which they can confidently hang their hats.

"I've felt ideologically and intellectually homeless for a long time," says the insurance salesman. What about Ross Perot's organization? "Close, but no cigar," says an educator. "Too paranoid."

So where do they fit in? Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and columnist Pat Buchanan talk of an emerging cultural war in America. They say that the battle is between what they consider right-minded cultural conservatives and libertine liberals. They're right about the war; they're wrong about the combatants. The real cultural war is between the culture of narcissism and what might be called the culture of renewal, which is where these folks fit.

During the past two decades, the culture of narcissism assumed a variety of costumed identities. First came the benign - often constructive - human-potential movement. But the culture of narcissism moved on; it led to the abandonment of the traditional neighborhood and the rise of walled communities and private residential governments that offer elite services and private cops in exchange for personal freedom and privacy. It led to a political landscape that has less and less to do with our lives and more and more to do with the vanities of handlers and pollsters.

The radical religious right and the intolerant far left are also part of the culture of narcissism. They cannot see past their own slim agendas; they pursue a kind of cultism, the group expression of narcissism.

Even the self has been diminished: Now we have narcissism's offspring, the culture of stuff - the deafening, electronic roar of commercialism without meaningful human content. The results? The starkest evidence is the effect on the emotional and physical health of children, who are the canaries in this mine shaft.

But now comes some light: Americans who have become increasingly dismayed by the disappearance of the public space, of community, of true safety. The culture of renewal shows up in some odd places.

Florida professor Ray Oldenburg describes the "great good place" as cafes, coffee shops, community centers, and general stores - the "third place" between work and home where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversations. …