Sunday, December 6, 2015

As the generations that grew up in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s pass from the active scene, I worry that the community structure in our nation is undergoing a seismic change.

The local organizations that provided both financial and cultural support to help knit our communities together are fading away and being replaced with nothing but the complex bureaucratic structures of the Federal government.

The aging generations and a strong local financial structure were the backbone of support in cities and towns all across the country. They are slowly dying.
1)      Fraternal organizations such as Masons, Shriners, Odd Fellows, Knights of Columbus, etc. have been fading away for years.
2)      Social organizations such as Rotary, Kiwannis, the Lion’s Club and the Grange have funded a huge amount of the social requirements of communities. But their memberships are dwindling.
3)      Military organizations such as the VFW and American Legion have become shadows of their former selves.
4)      Children’s groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, 4H and Camp Fire which provided structure for so many kids have been overshadowed by the appeals of video games and drugs.
5)      Churches in most areas of the country have had dramatic losses in membership and can no longer bring the resources they once had to the social structure.
6)      The feeling of neighborhood and shared association has disappeared in many areas.
7)      Local banks, which provided so much aid to community efforts are disappearing, replaced by regional or national organizations that have lost touch with local needs.
8)      Public libraries, historical associations, and musical organizations like community concert groups, city orchestras and choral groups are finding it tougher and tougher to survive.

There are not many new organizations, fueled by the younger generations, that are focusing on replacing or reinvigorating what we are losing. Instead we are passing local responsibilities to the federal government where local needs are neither understood nor capable of being supported. Our sense of community is disappearing with them. We have already seen the impact it has had on quality of education and healthcare. The bureaucrats in Washington just don’t have the same level of interest or involvement in the quality of life in local communities. They are looking at bigger pictures.

We will lose a lot if this continues. The appreciation of the arts and the human spirit, the security of neighborhoods where people care about each other, the sense of actually feeling involved in our government will all disappear. Perhaps it already has in many places. We all may soon be tucked into our internal worlds where electronics are our lifelines to the outside, and we are just a population living in the same area. We may become a nation of lost souls adrift in tiny spaces that never feel like “home”.

I am including a piece from Granite Grumblings (Snap Screen Press, 2011) called Phil and Larry's, which may provide you with a little sense of what we already are missing.

Glenn K. Currie

Phil and Larry’s

When Phil and Larry’s store closed, it marked the passing of an institution which had been a landmark for the community. It was a destination for countless high school students who appreciated its convenience to their classrooms, but even more so, it was the sustaining energy for a neighborhood.

During the lifetime of this business, the world changed. Small downtowns were assaulted by the encroachment of mammoth malls. Service stations became convenience stores with self-service gas pumps. Five and dime stores gave way to Walmart and Target, and the corner grocer traded his apron for the unreadable nametag of the supermarket.

 Somewhere along the way, the sense of ourselves as individuals also started to disappear, burning out in the white-hot intensity of modern life. People rushed head down from door to car to door, consumed by the demands of making a living, and content to satisfy their needs for conversation and human contact through the sanitized filter of the TV screen and the internet. Along the way, friends became acquaintances, neighbors were hardly known, and parents and children sometimes became distant relatives.

There were few lifelines to reach for as the waves of change swept us along. The banker who used to work on a handshake, suddenly was replaced by someone reporting to Boston or Ireland, and needed a file to know your name. And the family doctor was often replaced by organizations that ran on acronyms and numbers.

Maybe that’s why the passing of Phil Denoncourt’s little store had such a profound affect on the community it served. Phil is a personable man who seemed to reflect the best of old New Hampshire. He looked you in the eye, had that dry sense of humor that seems to be nursed to perfection in this state, and he knew everyone’s names. He treated his customers with respect and had the time to listen when you wanted to talk. He and his family provided an environment that made people want to linger and chat after they made their purchases.

Often you would see Phil and customers playing cribbage or checkers or cards when times were slow. He was always willing to give you an opinion on the movies in his video library, or discuss the virtues of the local sports teams, many of which he saw up close in his capacity as a baseball and softball umpire.

The store itself had a special charm. It was filled with all sorts of novelty candies, sports cards, and inexpensive toys that made it a joy for children of all ages. You could buy night crawlers, hunting and fishing licenses, hardware items, lottery tickets or get your skates sharpened. We were often amazed at the variety of items in the store, although I must admit that some of them had been there a while. But more than once when we had searched every store in town in vain for a desperately needed item, we would finally find it on a back shelf at Phil's.

When the world finally left the little store behind, it was because people no longer had time for it. Life had moved to the turnpikes and the country roads had become curiosities.

There was a farewell party at the store, and a final auction attended by friends. Typically, Phil felt he had recouped his inventory costs during the “going out of business” sale that preceded it, so he donated the auction proceeds to charity. People came from all over Concord to laugh and cry and pay their respects. And Phil and his mother and the rest of the family that had seen it through two generations, watched it finally end. A place that had once been called the “city hall annex” because so many of the city’s leaders congregated there, finally became an empty shell.

I don’t worry about Phil. He had a new job within two days of starting his search. And he is the kind of individual who brings to an employer much more in value than a paycheck can ever return.

I do worry about the community, however. I feel sorry for the high school students who will grow up never experiencing the difference between a Phil and Larry’s, and a self-service convenience store. And I grieve for the local residents, present and future, who have lost the chance to meet their neighbors there, talk sports and politics, and feel the pulse of a real neighborhood.

For all of us, these kinds of places were an important part of what shaped the character of New Hampshire, and they are now rapidly disappearing from the scene.

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