On April 21, I spent about six hours working on a community garden in the Matthews Mill Village, one of the old mill villages that make Greenwood, SC so distinctive. The garden is in the backyard of a house-turned-community center owned by Community Initiatives, Inc., and I was there with about a dozen other guys who all came out to work on the garden as part of our church’s Operation Inasmuch local missions project.
The entire experience was eye-opening for me for a range of reasons although I’ll only discuss two of them here.
- I had never been to this particular mill village. By their nature, mill villages were built to be self-sustaining (this one has its own miniature downtown and post office), and so Matthews Mill Village is cut off from the rest of Greenwood even though it is virtually in the middle of it. None of Greenwood’s major thoroughfares actually take people straight through it, so folks who live in the rest of Greenwood can live their lives without ever seeing or thinking about this neighborhood.
- It made me think about the nature of neighborhoods and communities.
This community garden is going to take the collective effort of a group of people. We planted 28 tomato plants, about 24 banana pepper plants, a patch of lettuce, and a little herb garden. The people in that community are going to have to water the plants, weed the garden, and gather the produce.
This means that they will have to both handle the chores and operate within parameters of fairness: Who will take those tomatoes home? Will they be the same folks who put in the hard work? How many tomatoes should a person take home from a community garden?
At first glance, all of this might seem like small potatoes, but it isn’t. I live in a great neighborhood. I’m proud of how my neighbors maintain their property, and I’m proud of the neighborhood’s diversity. Here, in the heart of The South, in this completely middle-class neighborhood, four of the houses I can see from my front porch are home to African-American families, and this diversity is pretty consistent throughout the neighborhood.
In comparison to the Matthews Mill Village, however, my neighborhood is not a community. The social arrangement with my neighbors goes something like this: we will smile and wave, and we will wait patiently for each other if one of us is checking the mail—from the car—while other is trying to pull into the driveway. Our shared spaces are scarce, and they are under the care of a landscaping company. We know more about each other from the political signs we put in our yards during election season than from conversations we've shared. If put to the test, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t provide the police the names of my neighbors, just as I’m pretty sure they couldn’t provide mine.
Last Saturday, the Matthews Mill Village had a neighborhood cleanup. That was a coordinated event that culminated in a community dinner. In my neighborhood we all just did our customary yard-work and then retired to our individual backyards.
Years ago I sat in classes and heard professors lecture about how American communities have lost the real “sense of community” that made the nation strong in its youth—the type of “sense of community” that would enable people to come together to raise a barn or hold a “real” town hall meeting to determine the best course of action on a given issue. But only now have I come to realize—really feel in my guts—the difference between a neighborhood and a community.