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Breaking Away: The Secret Secession of American Cities

Aug 15, 2019 | Featured

I have El Paso on my mind. I think we all do. A small city, barely 600,000 in population, snugged up against the US/Mexican border. One fact jumped out at me when I googled it today. Wikipedia speaks of El Paso as one of three cities intertwined in a tight and deeply inbred relationship. One of these sister cities is Ciudad Juarez – which is directly across the border in Mexico; the other is Las Cruces, a city less than an hour away in New Mexico. To quote Wikipedia, “Bi-nationally, these three cities form a combined international metropolitan area sometimes referred to as the Paso del Norte or the Borderplex. The region of 2.5 million people constitutes the largest bilingual and binational work force in the Western Hemisphere. Together, they are a force. These are a people who have found joy, community, and success as a reflection of their heritage and culture – not despite it, but because of it. Shoppers from across the border often visited that Wal-Mart – it was part of the gentle fluidity that makes up many a border town. They created this flow, they respected each other, they lived lives of deep support and connection. And, in the face of such a horrendous disaster, I suspect they will reach out to each other harder, hold each other more closely, and define who they are more firmly.

I think the idea of community, and of neighborliness – once dusty and antiquated words – are becoming incredibly powerful and sought after today. People are choosing to live in places that have a center – a purpose or central meaning. They are digging in. They want to be a part of a greater whole, even if that is a vision that will take years, if not decades, to bring to fruition. This is new for us. America seemingly has been built on the back of mobility – of movement. We are perceived as a restless nation, endlessly seeking new shores, new vistas, new challenges. But are we? Today, Americans are less mobile than at any other time in history. We are NOT moving. We are staying put. There are a lot of reasons for this, many financial. It costs a lot to move. There is a housing crunch. Millennials are staggering under massive amounts of college debt. But there is another more emotional reason- people like their communities. They don’t want to leave their towns. They have a voice and a role in the place where they call home. And those places are gaining strength and sustenance from this psychological commitment.

Strong, connected cities and communities are gaining in strength and stature across this country. And no, I am not talking about the rise of Millennial-bait cities, with walkable new downtowns flush with coffee shops, bike lanes and band stands. This is a different kind of connection, those of shared beliefs and individual commitments to a greater good. Places where living there means you take care of each other. This year, I have been visiting many of these places – and I have begun to see a trend in what I call “Communities of Choice.” Places that may not be easy to live in, because of weather, or location, or a lack of industry; but places that afford its citizens the grace of purpose, and the opportunity to live whole, rich lives. From Missoula, Montana to Brattleboro, Vermont, towns, cities and communities are stepping up and leaning in to create safety nets around basics like food and health care, and the even more critical, if seemingly ephemeral needs like connection, and touch. Social action, and civic engagement are as required here as mowing your lawn or obeying a stop sign. The folks in these places acknowledge this unwritten constitution, and believe it is a critical reason why they live where they do. They each have a role, they each can make a change, they all have a platform on which to stand. These are towns that are built literally on what it means to neighbor – to care for each other, and to come together to push back on the pain, the loneliness and the fear that modern life seems to breed.

These cities are also deciding how they want to govern, and what they are choosing to stand for. They are reclaiming their hearts and refusing to function merely as limbs of greater entity. Right now, there are over 564 U.S. Jurisdictions that identify as Sanctuary Cities – 564!!! There are 29 states and cities currently suing the Trump administration over the Obama-Era Climate Rule rollback. 23 states and municipalities are suing the administration over the expanded “conscience” protection rule, seeing it as a threat to health care for those who live outside the norms. There is a new line in the sand being drawn about who we are and what we believe in. We have found our voice and will use it to protect our own.

I believe El Paso will be one such city. Like many an area that has been affected by tragedy, we will undoubtedly watch this place grow even more close knit and strong. One citizen, Joseph Charter spoke to this as the community grapples with what has happened and tries to figure out how to move on. Charter said the tragedy has united the city. People, usually busy if cordial, are looking up – and at each other – and acknowledging them as neighbors in each other’s care. “I’m used to having a very close-knit support system in the Jewish community,” he said. “And now I’m seeing it as a greater El Paso community.”

We will see this light shine, joining the hundreds already casting small clear beacons of hope. We are finding each other, like little children walking through the dark. We may be afraid, but we know we will find our way home together.

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