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Are San Quentin inmates a 'community of thugs'?

October 15, 1989|RICHARD LEE COLVIN

A state bureaucrat quoted in a recent news story used the phrase "community of alleged violators" to refer to unscrupulous real estate developers bent on ignoring building restrictions in the Santa Monica Mountains.

That phrase caught my eye because it seemed to take the now-common disregard for the true meaning of the term community to new lengths. Are San Quentin inmates a "community of thugs"? Are Ivan Boesky and his ilk members of "the community of convicted insider traders"?

The dictionary accepts as a community any group of people living in close proximity. Any group that shares common goals, or fellowship or friendly voluntary association also qualifies. But overuse has caused the term to become virtually meaningless. And the fact that no one has complained is itself telling.

Although developers' operations may be similar, one could infer from the bureaucrat's phrase that a coterie of polluters and rapacious developers meet for brunch and casually discuss despoiling the land. No one really believes that developers join in such fellowship. And because they don't, a secondary, but essential, meaning of the word community has been eliminated.

I began thinking about the uses and abuses of the term community when my wife and I recently moved into a home in the San Gabriel Valley. Even before the movers left, neighbors showed up to introduce themselves and to offer assistance. One offered the use of his tools. Another explained the shortcuts around town and a third told us where the churches were located.

Those gestures epitomize for me the meaning of the word community . But I found that when I used the term in describing our neighbors' warm welcome, it sounded tinny and false. It was then that I realized that the true meaning of the word has been stolen.

The phrase "business community" has long been used by city officials everywhere to refer to commercial interests. In recent months, I have also read or heard such uses as the "drug-dealing community," the "aviation community," the "mathematics community," the "auto-racing community" and on and on. Although those who claim membership in any of these groups may share some activities, they do not necessarily "commune" with each other.

Perhaps the term is used so much because many of our communities have been tormented by gangs, choked by traffic and changed irrevocably by the rapid turnover that occurs when housing is viewed as a quick moneymaker rather than a place to put down roots.

When one can double one's money in a few years by fleeing with one's equity and trading up, is it any wonder that neighborhoods change too rapidly for the people to feel connected to one another?

People who live protected by alarms and scared of being out on the streets have little contact with their neighbors and are thus unfamiliar with the pleasant interactions and genuine concern that used to bind neighborhoods together.

The Los Angeles City Council recently addressed this issue when it decided to experiment with assigning police officers to walk beats in Sepulveda and 17 other police precincts around the city. Residents of those neighborhoods say the increased police presence has allowed them to come out of their homes and to enjoy their community once again. That feeling may well evaporate as soon as the experimental programs end.

It may be that the word is used so often as a way to compensate for the destruction of communities and to reassure ourselves that we do belong to something larger than ourselves.

But there are those who use the word in opportunistic ways.

Take, for example, the activists whose so-called "community organizations" are really nothing more than fronts for homeowners concerned solely about property values.

A community is much more than homeowners banded together to preserve large lots and high home prices. A community is a group of people who are able to see that narrow self-interest must compromise when it conflicts with the greater good and who are willing to work to achieve those higher goals.

Leaders of the two main groups who vociferously oppose noise at Van Nuys Airport and who want to widen restrictions on takeoffs and landings provide another example.

These self-proclaimed community leaders do represent a legitimate point of view. But by terming themselves community leaders, they can purport to represent a broader range of interests than just those of anti-noise activists.

They are "anti-noise activists," not "community leaders." They are leaders of a special-interest group, not the leaders of a community.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that few San Fernando Valley residents, even among those who live near the Burbank and Van Nuys airports, share the anti-noise vehemence expressed by leaders of these groups. If the airport noise activists are leaders, then it appears that they have relatively few followers.

Part of what is objectionable about the way the word community is misused is an issue of linguistic economy. Why not say "mathematicians" instead of "the mathematics community"? Or, simply, auto racers or aviators or drug dealers or whatever.

But a phrase such as "community of alleged violators" also grates on the ear because it implies something positive that in most instances is undeserved.

And it therefore drains an important word, and an essential idea, of all meaning. In Los Angeles, especially, true communities are difficult to find. And when they do exist, we need to be able to call them by their proper name.

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