I'm isolated in a depressed urban area ... and now my parents have moved in with me!

How do I find community? Everyone I used to know has moved away.

Published August 12, 2008 10:35AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been in a rut for several years, and I don't know what to do about it.

My parents went bankrupt and moved in with me. I'm single, pushing 40, and not dating anyone. I can't have children, so there's no anxiety over my biological clock. But I wish I had a partner and friend in life. Unfortunately, I live in an economically depressed area where people just aren't dating in my age bracket -- they're focused on surviving.

The last time I had a boyfriend was over four years ago. He cheated on me and left me for the other woman. (He wound up cheating on her, too, so he's not a loss.) The boyfriend before him did the same thing, but he married the other woman.

I don't hate my job, which is a plus. I have a roof over my head and food on the table. But I don't have friends to go out with. The ones I used to have locally got married and drifted away, despite my efforts. I have friends from other states that I stay in touch with via the phone and e-mail, but that's not the same.

I write and have won awards for my work, which is nice. But I haven't made any money at it, hence my day job. I can't move to a new area because of my credit card debt and my parents. They honestly wouldn't make it on their own financially. They're not jerks, so the situation isn't unbearable. It's just not what I had envisioned for myself at the age of 38.

Malaise seems to be my middle name. How do I stop this drifting from day to day and start living? Is anyone really happy these days, or are they just getting by like me?

Lost in an Old Mill Town

Dear Lost,

The problem of personal isolation in depressed areas is not going away. Consider this from the Time/CNN Web site: "By Government reckoning, a depressed area is one in which at least 6% of the workers are unemployed and the total has run at least 50% above the national average for four of the last five years. The U.S. has 19 major depressed areas and dozens of minor ones scattered from Washington to Maine, most of them concentrated in the industrial East."

That sounds plausible, I thought. "Now," the article continued, "President-elect John F. Kennedy has put a depressed-areas bill at the top of his list of must legislation." The article, from Time magazine, was dated Monday, Nov. 28, 1960.

That certainly worked out well, didn't it?

So, since you're going to be there a while, I suggest you try to build community in your own area.

I say build, not join. There probably isn't an existing community for you to join that would meet your needs. You are going to have to build it.

Call it the Local Society of Helping People, Drinking Coffee and Lending Tools. Or call it Survival, or Community, or Help Club, or the Misfits Union, or People Whose Parents Are Crashing With Them Support Group Local No. 1285.

Have fun with it. Call it whatever you want. It's your group. The main point is to begin.

Put up flyers around your neighborhood. Give it a place and a time: Wednesday nights at 7:30 at your local rundown restaurant. They could use the business, even if folks just drink coffee. If you put a group in a rundown restaurant, others who are also isolated and depressed will pass on the street and notice there is life in the rundown restaurant and they will wonder: Is it a birthday party?

There is a minor utopian element to this, as you are trying to change society and cleverly meet a number of human needs not just practical but spiritual. You are rearranging society in a certain way, on a very small scale. There is some subtlety of design to it. You expect results greater than the sum of your efforts. But it's not utopian. You do not expect perfection. You are not trying to build a new world. You are just trying to get some more community in this one. So I think of it more as a social tool. It's a systems approach.

Look at it this way. You experience isolation and loneliness. At first, you think the antidote will be a person. So you seek a person. But contact with one person will not solve it. Two isolated people fleeing their isolation is not a cure. Isolation is a problem of pattern and structure, of temporal and spatial arrangements. Isolation occurs because the patterns of your life don't bring you into contact with enough like-minded individuals on a regular basis in a comfortable, low-intensity setting. That's what you need. It's called regular life, or street life, or family. It's a structure, or pattern.

Many contemporary patterns work against this. Work life puts us alone in cubicles. Transportation life puts us alone in cars. Our various survival projects -- paying bills, eating food, home maintenance -- are undertaken in private. We have very few collective tasks. So we are isolated.

We need structures that bring people together in low-intensity ways. Even if the structures are synthetic, they will yield life.

I suggest that everyone who feels isolated do this. Look for ways to regularly encounter others. It sounds ridiculously simple-minded. But community grows organically through regular low-intensity face-to-face contact with others. Because our architecture and planning are so bad, many of us are literally starving for society. If your architecture and city planning were good you couldn't be isolated. It wouldn't let you be isolated. It would channel your purposeful movements past other groups so that you have regular, low-stakes contact at a safe distance and in motion. But in the face of bad architecture, bad planning and isolating patterns of work, transportation and consumption, we need to make artificial structures.

Current community structures work for some but not all. What about the rest of us? We deserve community, too. We just have to make our own.

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