In his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, author Eric Klinenberg argues that what counts as social infrastructure — "public institutions such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools" — are necessary aspects of democratic society.
Social infrastructure comprises "the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact." Democracy, Klinenberg writes, quoting philosopher John Dewey, "must begin at home … and its home is the neighborly community."
Today, however, many Americans have retreated from these public, democratic spaces toward more secluded domains, the author argues. We've traded libraries for living rooms and athletic fields for Fortnite.
During an Aug. 7 discussion on the book, which was the most recent One Book, One Oak Park selection, around two dozen Oak Park community leaders, many of them heads of local public institutions, gathered to discuss the implications of the country's collective retreat from the public sphere.
In Oak Park, which has no shortage of social infrastructure, the challenge has less to do with the scarcity of public resources than with who can and cannot access them.
"We don't think about the ways in which things have been structured that allow [our community] to be welcoming to some and not so much to others," said Linda Francis, the director of Success of All Youth who sits on the boards of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and the Oak Park Education Foundation (and is a Wednesday Journal Viewpoints columnist).
"And it doesn't have to necessarily be something you do intentionally," she said. "Some of it has been built into the way our systems are."
Antonio Martinez, the Community Foundation's CEO, called the country's increasingly privatized reality "disheartening," considering the obvious value of robust public spaces and institutions. Martinez said community members can nonetheless reverse the tide.
"If we say we want to build community, we have to put some skin in the game on our own," he said. "We have to build trust and understanding, we have to listen, we have to be transparent and inclusive, and we have to give part of ourselves."
"When you're in the role we are in, there's a responsibility to ask how we can be more effective at working through some of these barriers and issues," said Phil Jimenez, president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA.
Stephen Jackson, social services specialist at the Oak Park Public Library, said the book helped reinforce the usefulness of his role at the library.
"Reading this book affirmed the work that's being done in the library world," he said. "It affirmed the need for a social services department here as well as other libraries across the nation."
Jan Arnold, executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, lauded the value of public parks and playgrounds.
"Playgrounds are like melting pots," she said. "You meet folks from all ethnic backgrounds. You don't know if they own a house or live in an apartment. You don't know [their academic backgrounds]. You don't know those things. It's a wonderful way to connect. I made friends on the playground when my son was 6 years old and I was pushing him on the swings. You can develop those relationships."
The One Book, One Oak Park book selection has been accompanied by a range of social infrastructure-building initiatives. In June, Klinenberg, a Chicago native, visited the Oak Park Public Library to discuss the book.
The library will host a "Community Empathy" gardening activity at Whittier on Aug. 14, 4 to 5 p.m. On Aug. 29, 6 to 8 p.m. at Fox Park, the library will host a "Book Bike," where community members can participate in story time, browse through library materials and even sign up for library cards while outdoors.
For more information on One Book, One Oak Park, visit: oppl.org/news-events/one-book-one-oak-park/.
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