OPINION/ EDITORIALS: Knock, knock: Time to open our doors to a sense of community

 Here's my latest Sunday editorial, please subscribe to Newsday.


Knock, knock: Time to open our doors to a sense of community

Sometimes comedians are the most perceptive observers of our society. For instance, Sebastian Maniscalco, whose standup sessions are the rage on Netflix, tells how we’ve changed in the way we greet people from the community when they knock on our door. 

“It’s a different feeling when your doorbell rings today as opposed to 20 years ago, right?” says Maniscalco, a Chicagoan who could easily be mistaken for a native Long Islander. “Twenty years ago, [when] your doorbell rang, that was a happy moment in your house.”  

Back then, Maniscalco says, you eagerly greeted surprise visitors with pound cake from Entenmann's, made a pot of Sanka to drink, and chatted through the night. Now, when there’s a knock at the door, the people inside go into a security high alert. “Get the hell down, somebody’s outside — they’re at the door! I think they saw movement,” Maniscalco screams, mimicking the paranoid frenzy of homeowners with outdoor video cameras peering at uninvited intruders at the door. 

As he explains, “You can’t stop by anybody’s house anymore. If you do, you have to call from the driveway!”  


All jokes aside, the subtle societal changes observed by Maniscalco — the fundamentally different way we often deal with one another now —  seems even more magnified after the three-year COVID-19 period of enforced isolation. While Maniscalco’s audiences roar with recognition at his joke, it’s no laughing matter for society, reflecting the current alienation and fear of many and its impact on how we treat each other.  

Increasingly, we are finding it hard to go on with many of the ties that bind us together as a community, the familiar groups and traditional rituals. Some are in decline, while others must be reinvented to maintain a sense of purpose in the 21st century. 

For decades on Long Island, fraternal organizations, religious groups, business luncheons, and other civic-minded groups helped form the very fabric of our everyday life.  They provided places where newcomers could meet and greet neighbors with a handshake and smile. You could develop friendships, new skills and contacts that could enrich your life.  

But the open door may be closing for some of these groups. 

The difficulties faced by several American Legion posts on Long Island — threatened with possible closure due to declining membership and funding — is similar to the crises involving many other U.S. fraternal organizations where attendance is also diminishing.

The American Legion was created after World War I as a service organization for returning war veterans. Often after spending years in the military, sometimes experiencing war in places like Germany, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, these Legion members returned home, hoping to translate their sense of patriotism and service into doing good for their local communities.  But now in Sea Cliff, Oyster Bay and Plainview, the familiar American Legion halls are in danger of shutting their doors. Others are talking about merging and worry about their future. Post 365 in Bay Shore  is selling its historic "Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building"  on East Main Street although the post will continue with just 18 active members. 

VFW CHAPTERS CLOSED It’s a trend affecting other groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars. One 2021 estimate by the Suffolk County VFW commander said about 20-30 VFW and American Legion chapters had closed in Suffolk and Nassau. Other community service groups and fraternal organizations, like the Kiwanis, Lions, Shriners and Rotary clubs, are encountering similar problems. One 2018 study reported that among the 100,800 fraternal organizations in the U.S., many have seen their membership shrink, despite millions of dollars in assets and annual income from fund-raising. 

The steady loss of community-minded groups is of great concern to many observers worried about their social impact. Even the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in May about an "epidemic of loneliness and alienation." A younger generation which spends more face time in front of a screen than face to face with others is failing to develop the skills needed to interact and successfully communicate in society. Such a complex dilemma for our society deserves more than hand-wringing and finger-pointing. COVID's emotional impact makes us wonder if some really want to return to normal life with others or prefer to stay home using Zoom. True leaders must look for concrete ways we can redress these wounds to our soul and our community, rather than divide us further. In some cases, we should try to reinvigorate those traditional civic-minded groups that can still be of service today. Some libraries have broadened their mission from merely lending  books into becoming true community centers, and school districts have an ever-expanding menu of adult education courses to foster human contact. But we must also look for new ways to build community, seeking places where people can find meaning and emotional sustenance —  an open door to the public square where everyone is welcome.