A global view — from New York to Prague and in between
Read your daily newspaper or turn on the nightly news and you’ll be hard-pressed not to come across a mention of community.
The intensification of racism and partisan volatility consistently spurs talk of divided and united communities. An upswing in urbanism has city leaders creating walkable communities, and millennials’ attention to volunteerism has that age group spending considerable time giving back to the community.
While discussing an upcoming excursion to BookExpo America in New York and then to Europe with my Ford Motor Company Fund editor, he asked, “How do people define community?” Wheels turning, he added, “What if, while you are traveling, you ask people what community means to them and who makes up their community?”
I could see why he was curious. Community is an integral part of the Ford Fund, which contributed $33 million to community life last year alone.
For my part, community was an easily definable term: It was family, friends, neighbors and fellow church congregants. Intrigued that I would learn more, I agreed to the story concept.
The plan was simple: After my short trip to the BookExpo, my 23-year-old niece, Dannielle, and I would travel to London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin and Prague, among other cities, and come back with fascinating stories to tell.
And that’s what happened. However, conversations with strangers and friends along with terror, travel delays and theft taught me more about community than I imagined.
Meeting my people: New York
Every spring, BookExpo provides publishers, distributors, printers, booksellers, bloggers, librarians, authors and others in the book world an opportunity to connect with new people and learn more about the craft.
After standing in line at book signings and sitting in ballrooms listening to cherished authors, I began to appreciate something. We spoke the same language, shared a common love of books and of words. These people were my community.
Though BookExpo was a work-related trip, there was an added benefit. I was meeting Tracy Cox, a friend, artist and writer living in Oakland, Calif., whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. As we traipsed off for breakfast, a familiar, pleasant feeling washed over me. It wasn’t safety exactly but something akin.
Tracy successfully explained my feeling when he shared his view of community. “Community keeps you grounded and gives you a sense that you're not alone in life. It’s a source of strength when the chips are down,” he said. “Those people (in your community) are your beacons of hope when life hits you hard. For me, community is a group of people who like and support each other and share ideals.”
"I picked up my community one-by-one as I grew older and lived my life. I have some great friends from Detroit, where I grew up; newer friends here on the West Coast, where I live now; and others spread all around the country. My community are those people who I feel I can talk and share stories, fun and good times with. They are people who I've worked with, played ball with, or sometimes just happened upon."
Tracy Cox, 52, Oakland, Calif.
Keeping calm in London
After a seven-hour flight, I arrived sleepless at London Gatwick airport on June 3 — a day many Brits will remember.
We dropped our bags at our hotel and quickly made our way to Westminster where we saw Big Ben and the famous Abby in the cursory way hungry, tired people view things. Once we found seating at The Red Lion Pub, though, everything seemed alright. We dined on fish and chips and a gravy, beef-and cabbage-filled meat pie in a delightful crust. When finished, Dannielle asked the manager about his accent.
“What do you think?” he asked, speaking at the nearly indecipherable speed young people often employ.
Turns out, he is from Latvia and had left home at age 15 to pursue theater. He lived in France and Germany and numerous other countries before landing in the United Kingdom. Without being asked, he said life is about making your own way in the world, working hard and about experiencing new things, not about staying at home with family — like his shortsighted younger brother. Then, before we could ask him more, he was gone.
From there, we hopped on a London-by-night bus tour where our lively guide pointed out the famous Harrods department store (illuminated by seemingly millions of glittering lights), Buckingham Palace (from a great distance) and London Bridge, which he said we would cross later but never did.
Soon, we stopped for what we thought was a short break, but our guide took off down the street. When he returned after several minutes the light, friendliness was gone.
“I apologize for interrupting your tour with bad news, but we must announce there has been a terror attack on the London Bridge,” he said solemnly before adding that someone ploughed into pedestrians there and we would have to take an alternate route.
And we did. We carried on, quietly.
By the time Dannielle and I disembarked at Westminster Bridge, the River Thames had lost its allure. We focused on finding a cab amongst panicky tourists and opportunistic gawkers trying to catch video of every police car and emergency vehicle speeding past. There were many. The seriousness of the situation weighed on us, but our cab driver was calm. Rather than dwelling on the attack, he fretted at great length about America’s new president and the U.K.’s own prime minister. The drive back was long.
The next morning, as we walked through a quiet, tree- and hibiscus-lined neighborhood to breakfast overlooking a canal, we didn’t ask anyone about community. Though it was paranoia, every glance my way felt like an indictment that shouted, “You don’t belong here! You don’t know what constant terror feels like!”
And we didn’t. Not really. Dannielle was 7 in 2001, and we hadn’t experienced a terror attack of great magnitude on American soil since. Besides, we were moving on after our one-day visit, while they would still be there wondering when the next attack would come.
Train Lodge Hostel: Amsterdam
As advertised, the Train Lodge is a hostel in an old Swiss locomotive on tracks a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk station. Our three-bunk compartment was clean, though claustrophobic; the hosts were friendly; and, based on the many languages we heard, the patrons traveled from all over the world.
Like thousands of other sightseers, we took a canal boat tour; shot photos at the I Am Amsterdam sign; zipped through the Rijks Museum, which houses stunning works by Dutch artist Rembrandt; and toured Anne Frank’s house. There, audio narrators illustrated how a community of Jews shrank because Nazis were shipping them off to concentration camps. Photos, videos and a promenade up the gradually narrowing stairs and through the rooms where the Frank family “lived” made the retelling increasingly painful and tiring. This family was in hiding because they shared a faith, an ideal and a way of life.
Back at the quiet hostel, I met Anthony Bouldet. The Frenchman arrived in Amsterdam less than a year ago to learn English. After staying a while at the Train Lodge, the owner offered him a job as a host. Now he works not only on his English but on a few different jobs to make ends meet.
The 24-year-old doesn’t picture friends or ideals when he thinks of community. Nor does he believe he has a personal community. Communities, he argued, exist only in minority groups in America — among people who can point to immigration and monumentally significant or historic events and remark on the resulting changes in their lives.
“I am just a random French guy,” he says. “In France, the culture is all the same.”
“When you talk to U.S. black guys, they can say our parents or grandparents come from Africa or were slaves. Like when Obama was president: We make a big deal about the ‘First Black President of U.S.A.’ You can notice this was community. Because this was something huge. This was something like ‘yeah, I come from here.’ Something bigger than my friends, my school.
“It’s something that’s in your blood. It’s a strong link to your past or your family, your history or history in general. If you are a U.S. guy with Spanish or African roots, because you have a different history, the future is way different. He might say I’m American, but I’m from this part or I am from Mexico. They can say, ‘We have a history. We can mark something.’ That’s what I think community is.”
Anthony Bouldet, 24, (Angers, France) Amsterdam, Netherlands
A Grand Place: Brussels
We swiftly made our way from the Airbnb, located in a Middle Eastern neighborhood, onto a thoroughfare that housed several small African-owned shops and restaurants until we reached what felt like an old village. Belgian, Chinese and Italian restaurants, stores, waffle vendors and the like dotted narrow cobblestone streets.
Eventually, we found the appropriately named Grand Place. Opulent and stunning, city hall, guild houses and Maison du Roi enclose this Brussels’ central square where, in the 16th century, martyrs were burned and counts beheaded.
It was amidst the crowds at Grand Place that we met Ayan and Nelle. While we were taking photos, the immigrants from Africa called out asking what language we were speaking. When I said, “English,” Ayan put on a British accent and asked why we didn’t sound like that.
“I speak American English,” I said.
Ayan was delighted. We chatted a bit about the inanities of the day — Nelle speaks little English while Ayan is nearly conversational — before I asked that all-important question about community. The pair looked confused. So, I used a bit of college-learned French mixed with American English to explain that friends, family, neighbors, church, might define their community. Turns out, the problem wasn’t language; the problem was my definition.
Nelle, whose father is black and mother white, said in a mix of French and English that people in America would accept her.
“In America, African-American, Afro-American, Black people get together. They have power. My race is my community.”
Said Ayan: “My people in Somalia are very hungry. But I like my people. Somalia is my community even though they have problems.”
“In America, they have light skin and dark skin, curly hair, hair like this,” says Nelle, raising her hands, wrists noticeably wrapped in wide white bandages, high above her head. In a flurry of French, she adds, “The people are so different (in America). It’s OK there. In Brussels, in Europe, they don’t care if you are part white. They just see black. You are not accepted.”
Nelle, 20, (Ivory Coast), Brussels, Belgium
“It’s trouble for me to be Somali in Europe. People don’t understand the people in Somalia are very tired. They don’t have food, water. You don’t have nothing there. My people have dictators. They are oppressed. They are very poor. They don’t speak up because they are scared. If they speak, they don’t get anything to eat. But they have children and that’s their family. That’s my community.”
Ayan, 20, (Somalia) Brussels, Belgium
A more powerful wall: Berlin
Before the thunder, lightning and umbrella-annihilating winds, my niece and I snapped photos of a few historic-looking sites; though I had no clear understanding as to their place in history. We ate street-side bratwursts and read the horrifying stories and viewed the concrete slabs at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe before setting out to see the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
In the early 1960s, after the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a 12-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide, 27-mile-long concrete and barbed wire monstrosity between East and West Berlin to prohibit the Western mindset from making its mark. The government succeeded in separating both ideas and loved ones. Nearly 30 years later, in November 1989, a new decree came down allowing residents to cross the border freely.
I remember watching the scenes on television: Throngs of people climbing and clamoring and pulling at pieces of the seemingly impenetrable wall until there was one hole and then two and then finally the wall and an old ideal toppled.
Ten months later, the East Side Gallery opened. That’s where 118 artists from 21 countries united to create murals on the longest remaining portion (less than a mile long) of the wall.
Along with lovers and friends and families with baby carriages, we viewed a few of the paintings, sometimes in awe, before the rain began. This wall, these works — big and bold and daring — now unite people from all over the world.
Astronomically striking: Prague
From dessert favorite trdelnik to Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, across the artist’s haven on the Charles Bridge and up the many steps to the Castle (to all the things we didn’t get to see), there is beauty all over Prague.
It’s no wonder then that artist Jacob Thomas wants to move there. An immigrant from India, Jacob grew up in Montclair, N.J., and is living and working as a sociologist in Texas. When asked about community Jacob’s eyes lit up. No prodding needed, it’s a hot topic for him.
“You can’t do anything alone. I grew up in metropolitan, urban areas and came from a dysfunctional family growing up and so I needed the community. I needed my football coach, I needed teachers, I needed members of the church, and the random homeless community. Anyone. My soccer teams. That was my family too.”
Now, Jacob says the community he built growing up is with him in spirit wherever he goes.
“I identify them with myself, so it’s like I kind of transformed into that community. I believe it’s about who you are as an individual. If you’re seeking a community outside yourself without knowing yourself then it’s kind of a win-lose situation.”
“Living in Texas… everybody relies on every single person, whether it’s one person or five or 10 people, to — in some kind of mustard seed kind of way — prepare and nourish a child or young adult so they can build community even more and send them out into the world to nourish and prepare others.”
To help make the Lufkin, Texas, community better, Jacob did an art project with high school students.
“I asked the kids — whether they can paint, whether they can write poetry, whether they can do a drawing however simplistic or advanced — to point out issues in the community that need developing. For instance, I asked them to illustrate abuse, domestic abuse, drug abuse, no streetlights, no sidewalks. I asked, ‘Are there oppressed groups within the community that have a fear right now of what’s going on politically?’
“These are areas that they might not talk about verbally with elders or teachers; but through art work, they will subconsciously speak it out no matter what. So, the truth comes out. That’s a good way to gain access to the minds and hearts and stories of rural communities and find out what you want to do to influence positive change.”
Jacob Thomas, 29, Houston, Texas
Communication is key: Lisbon
With Dannielle on her flight back to Miami, I waited a couple of hours at the Lisbon airport for the second leg of my three flight-journey back to Detroit. Waiting happily — I was ready to go home — at the gate is where I met another Texan. Sam Davenport, owner of SD. Aviation Maintenance Services in Dallas, ensures airplanes meet safety requirements.
Although family, church and coworkers in Dallas are part of his community, he says he travels to Portugal so frequently that he has another “family” there. “We’ve grown over the years where we act just like family,” he laughs.
Despite the diversity of race and religion, Sam says Portuguese people are one community. “They come together for a common purpose: They all love the flag.”
"The best way to make community stronger is to first of all have faith, trust and belief in God. Then, he says, you need communication. “You look around now and everybody is on their phone. Even family members don’t communicate. You can’t be a community if you don’t communicate.”
Community, he says, is working together for a common goal in a certain area, whether it be for the betterment of one’s kids, schools or for fighting crime.
“Whatever it is, that’s your community, and you come together and embrace what you do and just enjoy life."
Sam Davenport, 63, Dallas, Texas
Community in action
I considered some of what I heard on the long-haul flight back to the U.S., yet my experience at Newark Airport is what revealed community in action.
Following a quick late afternoon meal, I headed to the bookstore to find something to occupy my six-hour-long layover. I reached into my purse for a credit card and found nothing. No credit cards, debit card or driver’s license.
Sometime between paying for my meal and walking to the bookstore, I was robbed. Only my ticket and passport remained. I put my hands over my face and sobbed. Finally, I pulled myself together and tried calling my bank to cancel my debit card. Following the recorded instructions, I pushed 2; but the line disconnected. Each time I called, the results were the same, and the bank was closed.
I contacted Duane, a lifelong friend, who found a working number. Next, I needed to report the theft to police. But, despite the high terror alert levels, no one in the airport could direct me to the proper authorities. TSA directed me to the United Airlines gate agent; the United gate agent directed me to Customer Service; the customer service agents claimed they didn’t know how to contact police.
So, I went back to security screening and waited until I encountered two officers who suggested I not bother making a report because “they will never be found.” I ignored their suggestion.
Humorless and tired — I had been awake for more 24 hours — I went to the gate and called Duane hoping he could take my mind off the trouble. As he reminded me that I would be home soon and everything would be OK, United delayed the flight another two hours. Children cried, businessmen called their offices.
Next thing we knew, the two gate agents were bolting up the escalator and out of sight as weary, would-be passengers called after them. Looking at his mobile phone, one frustrated passenger yelled: “The flight is canceled!”
Forty minutes later, I was at the front of the ticket counter line; but when asked easily answerable questions, I replied in a blubber of tears. The ticket agent booked me on a 6 a.m. flight and gave me a ticket voucher to a hotel along with a voucher for a cab to get to said hotel. Still, I blubbered. I called my mom and could hear the quiver in her voice as she empathized with my weariness and worry.
Shortly after midnight, I was in a cab asking the driver to take me to the hotel. “I don’t know this place,” he said, his African accent thick with irritation. “Can you look it up for me?”
Apple Maps marked our time of arrival at 1:30 a.m. How could I go to a hotel more than an hour away with a 6 a.m. flight? Undoubtedly, by the time I got there and checked in, it would be time to return. Still, it was a place to sleep and shower, for an hour or so.
“What time is your flight?” the cab driver asked.
I told him.
“You should not go there.”
I agreed. I would either not sleep for fear of missing my flight or I would oversleep and miss my flight.
The driver added, “I can find you another hotel.”
I had no money and, without thinking, told this stranger my story. He gasped: “My sister, that is awful! How can I help you? Can I give you money?”
He wasn’t soliciting me. He was reaching in his pocket while driving back to Newark airport and railing about the “barbarity” of man. Taken aback by his abrupt turn from obvious disdain for his job to vehement concern for my welfare, I said “No, thank you. I will be OK.” As I got out of his vehicle, he admonished me to stay safe and wished me a better evening.
My evening did turn out better, but not in the way I expected it to. Just inside the door, an elderly woman in a wheelchair handed her sweater to a black man who was drowsily keeping watch over his pregnant wife and young child. The pair slept on a stack of clothing behind a wall of wheelchairs. While mouthing “thank you” to the woman, he draped the sweater over his little boy. It was in their enclave that I first took refuge.
Soon, though, the old woman, who could no more sleep in her wheelchair than I could in the airport terminal chair, became unsettled and began walking shakily, dragging her heavy bag on the floor behind her. I asked if she needed help. She fretted about her gate, how she would get there, if she could find it. Together, we figured out where we each needed to be before she told me with pride about her schoolteacher daughter and I told her my story. She prayed over me as an airport worker wheeled her away.
As I waited to board my 6 a.m. flight, I watched breaking news reports of the horrific apartment fire in London just 10 days after the attack on their bridge. How heart-wrenching it was to hear that some only survived the fire because neighbors and strangers caught them and/or their children as they jumped or were thrown to safety.
This and encounters over the next four hours revealed that community is far more nuanced than my original assumption.
• A U.S. military servicewoman, who hadn’t been home to the U.S. in 16 years, saw me crying and said, “I’m a firm believer in the power of hugs.” Then she wrapped her arms around me and gave me a squeeze only a mother could give.
• When an airplane maintenance worker saw me shivering, he offered to go on the plane that would eventually take me home and retrieve a blanket.
• A couple I had spoken to before United canceled our flight accompanied me to buy our voucher-paid-for-breakfasts as we laughed about travel horror stories and shared future vacation dreams.
• My dad arranged for a limo driver to meet me at baggage claim in Detroit because he wanted to ensure I made it the rest of the way home safely and in comfort.
Sure, community might well be new and old friends, family, teammates, fellow church members, minority groups and those we carry with us in spirit. But what about the stranger that offers money out of pure generosity, whisks a child out of harm’s way, calls you sister and means it, gives you a warm hug, or says a gentle prayer? Isn’t community about providing access to something another person or group needs?
After two weeks of national and international travel, I learned community is all these things. And it can be just one of them at the right time — a spontaneous alliance with friend or foreigner alike, working together for a common goal, even if the future outcome is unknown.