Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of Community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives about Change
2. Community as Story: A Nexus of Individual and Collective Narratives
2.1. Community Story Shapes an Individual’s Stories
What the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please … We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making … it is always the case that there are constraints on how the story can continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.
2.2. Creation and Maintenance of Community Boundaries
No human community could ever exist if we had no mechanism to enable us to feel safe in trusting other people’s behavior to follow certain predicable patterns. And these predictable patterns can’t arise solely from personal experience—we must know, with some certainty, before we have observed another member of the community for any length of time, what he or she is likely to do in most situations … Each community has its own epic: a complex of stories about what it means to be a member of that community … All storytelling contains elements of the particular, the epic, and the mythic (pp. 273–274).
It is because we all live out narratives in our lives, and because we understand our own lives in terms of narratives that we live out, that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told (p. 249).
2.3. Ideals Shape Stories
The belief that stable and tightly-knit communities have existed in the past and still survive in distant lands is an important myth for industrial and highly mobile societies. It is therefore no coincidence that it was in the turmoil of late nineteenth-century industrialization that the idea of “community” as opposed to modern “society” was developed extensively, particularly in the work of Tönnies.
…that mythical state of social wholeness in which each member has his place and in which life is regulated by cooperation rather than by competition. It … always seems to be in decline at any given historical present. Thus, community is that which each generation feels it must rediscover and re-create.
3. Community as Story: A Mythic and Imagined Structure
Myths express the collective mentality of any given age and provide patterns for human action … Since the human relationship with myth is based on use rather than truth or falsity, myth provides the most appropriate instrument for the necessary inversion of ideological contradictions … Myth’s flexibility allows its users to correct dysfunctional orientations without worrying about contradictions, logical or otherwise. Myths that lose the flexibility become dysfunctional.
4. Community as Story: The Place and the Imagined Community
In spite of its relatively enduring and imposing materiality, the meaning or value of the same place is labile—flexible in the hands of different people or cultures, malleable over time, and inevitably constructed … Place is not space—which is more properly conceived as abstract geometries … Space is what place becomes when the unique gatherings of things, meanings, and values are sucked out … Put positively, place is space filled up by people, practices, objects, and representations.
Things are not quite real until they acquire names and can be classified in some way. Curiosity about places is part of a general curiosity about things, part of the need to label experiences so that they have a greater degree of permanence and fit into some conceptual scheme.
We are all essentially terrestrial creatures identified with a particular town or area. No matter where we travel or what we do, there is in the back of our minds a place we call home. We may have several “homes”, each identified in time and space with other human beings and with important events. Unlike our forefathers, our spatial identity can change more easily as a result of education, travel, and occupation. Even though the mobility that is ours in the last one-third of the twentieth century enables us to develop identity with new places, we can and do identify through memories with those previous places that were “home”. Our mind usually reflects upon those places through eyes that recall landscapes and people as they were, not as they are today.
Place-making … is a common response to common curiosities—what happened here? … What people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the earth … If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.(Basso 1996, pp. 5, 7; emphasis in original)
The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being—“mass migrants”—who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves … Migrants must, of necessity, make a new imaginative relationship with the world, because of the loss of familiar habitats.
5. Social Impacts: The Rewriting of the Community Story
6. Shifts in Individual Community Stories: Vance, Alabama, and the Mercedes Benz Plant
The State of Alabama offered a lucrative incentive package to Mercedes-Benz that was estimated at four times the amount that other states offered. The original agreement included a pledge by the Tuscaloosa City Council to spend $30 million to buy and develop the plant site. Once the 966-acre tract was cleared, leveled and prepared for construction, the entire 966 acres was to be sold to Mercedes for $100.00. The Alabama legislature also set up a plan to allow Mercedes to keep five percent of its workers’ wages to pay off construction debts (the workers would get a matching tax break) and approved a twenty-five-year corporate tax holiday for the company. The state also was to pay the workers while they trained. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs approved a grant application dated December 1993 for estimated state funded improvements to the site and surrounding area totaling $426.3 million, which breaks down as follows: site acquisition, $5.3 million; site preparation, $12.4 million; site improvement, $10.0 million; water and sewer’ $11.0 million; railroad extension, $4.0 million; job training facility, $30.0 million; service center building, $5.0 million; fire station, $0.6 million; interstate interchange and access roads, $50.0 million; plant facility, equipment and other expenses, $300 million.
7. Residents’ Stories about Their Community
7.1. Sense of Belonging, Identity and Security
Here’s the place my mother and father moved back to when he quit saw milling in Birmingham. They moved back here and farmed it with my grandparents—another uncle lived here and another in that house up there. The next house here on the right, my mother’s uncle and his family lived there. My first cousin and her husband own this place here. So, due to those large families and bean farmers, they had a lot of property through here that was in the family. This place right here, I’m told, was bought for $1000 an acre—that’s before Mercedes—there’s 359 acres of it.
Well, it’s like this—if I broke a leg I can make one phone call to somebody and they’d be feeding my animals, they’d never miss a meal—I could make another phone call to someone else if my truck broke or my car broke and it would be fixed. We’ve always had a certain amount of dependence on the other one’s ability of what they could do and would do if we got in a bind.
There ain’t nothin’ no stronger than a family or community from my point of view. People knowing that there’s people out there they can trust that’s your neighbor, not necessarily your neighbor but the man down the street. He might be a mile away, but if you need him you know he’s there. He might not come to see you every week. You might not see him for a month but you know if you need that fella he’s there.
Even though we all live in our own houses, homes, it was like a big family. I know people who live two or three miles up the road and they know me. Vance is the type of place where if anyone had a problem, needed help, they wouldn’t have to ask … Vance is the type of place that when you would go into the town of Vance, you threw you hand up and said “Hi” to everybody. It was like one big family.
Here in this community, we help each other when needed—young and old alike. We won’t have that anymore. You don’t have it in Birmingham. You don’t have that in Tuscaloosa, except maybe in secluded neighborhoods. Everybody here knows everybody and if you get in trouble, you don’t have to go far to find somebody that’ll help you when you need it. Everybody knows whose kids is whose, so we take care of and look out for each other’s kids, we help each other out when we have trouble. It’s been that way ever since I’ve been here. We moved here in [1930s]—I was five years old. It’s always been a close-knit community. I care as much about these kids that run around here as I do my own. I just think that everybody needs to help raise our kids—we won’t have that again.
7.2. Community Change
You don’t belong. I mean, where we were, I had been there all my life. My whole life was within a two-mile radius, which a lot of people may think this is stupid, but you had your life in a two-mile radius. The church was a mile from the house. I worked at the school that was two miles from my house. And so everything, my whole life, was right there in that two-mile radius. And when that’s always been, you know it’s hard to readjust.
My whole attitude of life has changed. My attitude of life before this happened was that you come to my house and you said I want to buy this or I want to buy that or can I sell you this … I didn’t need a piece of paper. I didn’t need to know your background. I didn’t need to know who you were. We shook hands on it and that was fine with me. I don’t trust nobody no more. … My faith in people has went from here to way down.
They’re not as secure as they used to be. I mean you take a road that had twenty cars a day on it and you knew every one of them to a hundred twenty cars a day and you don’t know but about ten of ‘em You don’t feel as secure. I wouldn’t. I don’t feel as secure … here. I lock my door. I take my key out of the car now. I don’t leave my lawn mower sittin’ outside. My boat’s locked up. And there’s nothing wrong with this community, not a thing in the world; it’s just my faith in people has went to nothin’. It’s terrible, but that’s the truth.
Well, I just don’t think the ones that are left feel secure anymore. They don’t know when somebody’s gonna come in and, you know, like the highway department’s gonna come through and widen the roads there and they’re gonna have to move. I don’t think anybody is secure anymore, and you talk to people now and you tell them how we were done and they say, ‘Why, I can believe they can do that, that they can just come in and make you move and you not want to move.’ People just really do not realize the state has that power.
Well, as soon as people heard, they decided they wouldn’t sell. If you were sitting somewhere and a big plant was going in, what would you do? Are you going to sell it for $500 an acre when next year it may be worth $20,000? I understood both sides because I was a landowner, and I also understood the people, my very good friends, that were being displaced. I understood their problems in not being able to stay in the community in which they have lived all their life like I have. I realized that we need industry, and I’m all for that.
It has torn the churches up because so many of the staunch back-bone Christians had to move. Most of us around here are Baptist. They couldn’t find anything around here—two or three of the couples ended up in Brookwood and had to join that church; some ended up in Coaling, some in Tuscaloosa—they were scattered everywhere.
Oh, I’m glad. We are all glad. We have lost quite a number of large industries and we are glad for [Mercedes Benz] to come anywhere in Alabama. And, of course, we were most glad that it came to Tuscaloosa County. We realized when they told us that it was coming here that we were going to have to sacrifice; we knew this. We knew that our little town as we knew it was gone. I’ve known everybody all my life, and 35 people were displaced and found that they could not buy land anywhere, they had to move out of the area—I mean good people.
We’ve had too many friends and family go. They haven’t gone far, but I cannot get in my truck and spend one minute to get to some of my friends’ house, my very close friends. I can’t do that anymore. Long distance to call, fifteen or so minutes to get there. Which it don’t sound like far, but it’s a long cry from what it was.
We were talking about spin-off industries a while ago. If Mercedes-Benz grows and does what they have projected it to do, there is going to be more of an invasion, more land taking, more families that will have to go, more roads that will come through and I think they’re thinking more about that end of it. In other words, Vance will not be Vance anymore. It will be almost non-existent. You’re looking at a giant industrial park.
The opposition of Mercedes is on that basis. Folks don’t want to lose the small-town flavor and the convenience of the big city next door. We fear the fact that Tuscaloosa will come out, and already is, and imposing these new regulations and we’re losing the right and the freedom to do with our property as we see fit.
There’re other factors that need to be looked at. I’ve lived here sixteen years. I can go out my door and look any direction and I don’t see a neighbor. That’s the way I chose to live. That’s the way I choose to live now. I have been denied that right if I have to live in a subdivision. That’s not the way I want to live. I want to live in a private atmosphere like I live now. Not because I’m antisocial, it’s what I like.
The first remark I made when they announced it was you can kiss Vance goodbye. In the end the economic factors will force Vance probably to be absorbed into the city of Tuscaloosa or Birmingham or some other large municipality—most likely Tuscaloosa because Tuscaloosa will be able to provide the people that will be here the services they need and desire. Vance probably will not have enough tax-base to support what the people here will want in services—especially as it grows. You’ll have then people who will not be spending their money in Vance but will be demanding services from Vance where they live. It’s like my piggy bank—it can’t sustain me without my putting something back in it for so long. So, the purse strings will tighten—Vance won’t be able to do it because they won’t have the income and the people will say if you can’t do it, we’ll get Tuscaloosa to do it. And it has happened in other communities in other areas.
My personal opposition to it is basically this is home, this is where I intended to raise my children because I like the community. I like the convenience of everything. I like the small-town atmosphere and the convenience of being able to shop not 20 miles away and run back. I can, in 25 min, be in three different Walmart stores—there’s not many places in the country that you can be in three big super stores or Walmart stores in 25 min. When people start moving in here along with business that might come, all this will disappear. It won’t be no small town that convenient to the big city anymore.
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Cope, M.R.; Park, P.N.; Jackson, J.E.; Muirbrook, K.A.; Sanders, S.R.; Ward, C.; Brown, R.B. Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of Community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives about Change. Soc. Sci. 2019, 8, 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020070
Cope MR, Park PN, Jackson JE, Muirbrook KA, Sanders SR, Ward C, Brown RB. Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of Community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives about Change. Social Sciences. 2019; 8(2):70. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020070Chicago/Turabian Style
Cope, Michael R., Paige N. Park, Jorden E. Jackson, Kayci A. Muirbrook, Scott R. Sanders, Carol Ward, and Ralph B. Brown. 2019. "Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of Community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives about Change" Social Sciences 8, no. 2: 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020070