Discovering and Documenting
the Life of a Community
The “inner life” of communities is bubbling away all the time.
J. ARMSTRONG AND P. HENDERSON (1992, P. 189)
How enjoyable it is to learn what makes a town tick—whether a quiet town with one grain elevator or a toddlin' town like Chicago. The process takes us into libraries (research) and along thoroughfares (experience).
A library provides facts and analyses about urban areas. We can learn that the largest concentration of Filipinos in the United States is near San Francisco (Eljera, 2000). We can analyze what underlies changes in the urban neighborhood of Kibby Corners in Lima, Ohio (Li, 1996). However, conventional publications do not convey daily life for new Hispanic residents along the thoroughfares of Wisconsin and New Jersey—that entails footwork and a reading of ethnic newspapers. Similarly, libraries allow us to delve into rural areas (Homan, 1994, p. 100). For instance, nonmetropolitan areas can be classified; they can be manufacturing dependent, mining dependent, persistent poverty counties, retirement destinations, and so forth. Certainly, we want to identify a place's economic base and population characteristics (Davenport & Davenport, 1995, p. 2077). On the other hand, we want details about how this rural place functions and affects people, and that entails probing. Question: What is the current concern of the local planning board? Answer: Whether sidewalks should be added downtown. Question: How does local law enforcement plan to mount an antidrug program here? Answer: By asking residents to write down the names of suspected users and dealers and slide the paper under the town hall door (R. V. Demaree, personal communication, January 2, 1995).
It is a professional obligation to understand service consumers' communities. The first reason is responsibility. Knowing the whole picture is mandatory, regardless of our intended level of intervention. The second reason is credibility. Knowing a cross section of people and their histories gives us believability and access. The third reason is versatility. Knowing the players and systems provides us with more options. The fourth reason is accountability. Knowing what residents want gives us direction and makes us answerable. We talk about these responsibilities throughout this book.
Opportunities abound to experience community life, indirectly through reading (Boyle, 1995;