The Disappearing Town Square: A Look Into the Future of Community

Over the past months I have watched my town (yes, it really is a town, with sidewalks, pedestrians and outdoor cafes) and by extension, the community it serves, lose more than a few independent and valued local merchants. Gone are a family run luggage shop and a sporting goods merchant, a boutique shoe store, a children’s clothing shop and a gift shop that closed up by posting a sign on their window for their new online business web address. The double punch of a difficult economy and the fast growth of online commerce did them in.

They say the economy is starting to revive but for many businesses that failed, the way back to the consumer may be one that does not include a storefront. Barnes and Noble recently announced it may close many of its 700 outlets, a move Borders Books has already taken.

In my town, what remains are banks, real estate offices, restaurants, a couple of supermarkets, a news stand, several coffee shops, a barber shop, hair and nail salons, and one brave surviving independent book store.

I am no futurist but the changes I see (which are probably representative of towns all over the country) make me wonder if the town as we have all lived it is over. The local stores served us not only with all the basics of everyday life, they also gave us a place to bump into friends and neighbors, catch up on family and community life, find out who had moved in and who was leaving, hear about the new fifth grade teacher, the great yoga class, the wonderful junior rabbi who just arrived. … If these access points are gone what will hold our communities together? Facebook and Twitter cannot be the only answer.

The question for those of us interested in sustaining our communities should be: “What and who will make the most compelling argument to motivate people to leave their efficient, insular digital homes and offices and venture out into the community? Who will be ready to be the Jewish Starbucks meeting place?”

Leave out the necessities – hospitals, schools, grocery stores (oh, scratch that – you can get food delivered), synagogues (oh, for those who seek it, you can find services streamed to you online), the post office (oh, that one is just about finished anyway) the health club (oops, there is WiiFit for that) – and you are left with the barber, the beauty salon, and lots of restaurants to feed our inert bodies.

So, where does that leave our Jewish community? We have the infrastructure in our community centers, synagogues and federations but are they too at risk of disappearing? If the town square moves online to serve the global village, who is stepping in and up to fill an increasingly vacant urban landscape? Will there be reason for a town? For bricks and mortar buildings? What will our towns look like in 10-15 years?

Every synagogue, community center, school, senior center leader has to ask “What are we doing that is so interesting, so compelling that people will make the effort to come out and participate?” The challenge is to figure out how to be an essential part of the life of the community and then leverage the technology to engage, inform and ultimately entice people to step into it.

While we still have the last days of summer to ruminate about life in general, take a look at how you communicate with your community. Is your web site really engaging and interactive? Have you worked hard to get your stories in front of your audience? Have you creatively designed programs and experiences that are accessible, welcoming, inclusive, meaningful and that are planned to bring together lots of different people? Is the cost of entry reasonable? Will people find their investment in you worthwhile? Have you thought about setting up shop for a few weeks in one of those vacant storefronts and create a pop-up experience to engage more people? Have you used social media to alert people to your programs and invite them in? Have you tried something out of the ordinary that just might work?

The town square is undergoing major redefinition and relocation. The community that still relies on it is also undergoing change. People are adapting, experimenting, figuring it all out. Are you figuring out how to keep the town square alive and vibrant for them?

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional who currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.