Community Building and Betty Crocker…

For the past six years, sometime in early fall, I don an apron, which I place on top of a (borrowed) flowery shirt-waist dress, tie my hair in a bun, and call myself “Betty”. That’s Betty, as in Mrs. Crocker, the mythical 50s mom who graced the boxes of many a cake mix. A woman – or at least the character of a woman – who is the opposite of the mother I grew up with, who hated being a “housewife” and hated being in the kitchen. But I digress. Betty invites neighbors to an “apple bake-off”, a contest in which everyone “competes” to have their “entry” judged as the best baked apple treat. (Spoiler: In case you didn’t know, there never was a real Betty Crocker.) 

Here’s a little backdrop: I live on a street with many traditions. My neighbors have been putting on a Halloween extravaganza for many years that attracts a thousand children and their parents – yes, 1,000, I kid you not – which involves gory surgical skits with manic doctors and bloody body parts, lots of chocolate and a “honk” band that marches up and down the street playing New Orleans jazz. We have block parties in the fall and pot lucks throughout the year, and we even occasionally sojourn out of the neighborhood to go apple picking or to visit a museum together, caravanning with a string of cars if necessary. So it is in keeping with the (very) social world of my street that Betty decided to make a visit. 

After the first successful year, Betty decided to come back the next year and the next, and the bake-off officially became a new tradition. I guess that is how traditions are created. 

If the bake-off were in rural Tennessee or even Western Massachusetts, it would not be such an anomaly. But it turns out that the real-life country is not required for a group of friends to compete with one another to see who can make the most delicious baked apple treat. In fact, bringing the country to the city may be part of the appeal. We can “do” country in the city, but then we pop on the subway to see a play downtown. The competitive spirit in the bake-off kinda comes with the territory, but in our bake-off, the competition comes with a fair amount of tongue-and-cheek. Although each year, I have noticed that a lot of people seem to up their game, and that benefits everyone’s palate. 

To determine the winners, an “elite panel” of young people (i.e. awesome kids) sit in judgment, evaluating each entry with a tough set of criteria that appears to be borrowed from TV cooking shows. The truth is that this discerning band of judges is ruthless. So we decided to narrow the possible score they can dole out, from a 1-10 scale to a 7-10 scale. Yes, 7 is now the lowest number an entry can receive. But they take it very seriously, to be lauded; they do a great job; and everyone has fun. The bottom line is that no one loses too badly, and pretty much everyone is a winner, or as a native Bostonian would say, a “winnah”. This year’s 1st place winner received a cheesy, but effective, trophy. But everyone who bakes gets either a 1st or 2nd place ribbon. 

In the widely popularized pop-novel, “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam argues that the fabric of our social connections has dissipated, leaving us alone and isolated from one another. When the book came out in 1990, a number of critics said that just because people aren’t bowling together, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding other ways to come together. Civic activities have continued to flourish in other forms, they argued, from youth soccer leagues to book clubs to going to church or mosque or synagogue. Nonetheless, people are working longer hours, either in salaried jobs that have a “longer hours” culture, or by juggling more than one job in order to feed the family. Putnam says that these longer hours pull people away from their communities, and he’s probably right. 

Technology and social media are now being deemed as the culprits, stealing time from in-person communication. In fact, ironically, there are even blogs and YouTube videos lamenting how people spend too much time on their computers.

A lot of people, myself included, believe that people are still hungry to feel a “sense of community”. According to one extensive study published in the American Sociological Review (McPherson, Smith-Lovi and Brashears, 2006), there has been a huge drop in the size of our social networks. As a result of having smaller social networks, we have lost “discussion partners” or people with whom we can share confidences, either within and/or outside of our families. Moreover, given the implicit and explicit racial and class divides in our society, the potential for broadening our social networks beyond people who look like us is stymied.

Which brings me back to Betty, and a lot of other community-building events located in my neighborhood, and I’m sure many others around the country. For example, we have a very cool event in the ‘hood called JP Reads, which is “a community-wide literary celebration” where people read and discuss the same book, and get to meet the author (

And there’s Wake Up the Earth, a local festival in May that begins with several parades coming from a number of locations in the neighborhood and ultimately merging together on an expanse of greenery next to a subway stop, where live and local entertainment erupts.

And then there’s the ever-magical Lantern Parade, which was happening when my 23-year-old daughter was a kid, where young and old walk around the local Jamaica Pond at sunset carrying decorated lanterns with candles inside that reflect off the water.

Or most recently, a new tradition, the Jamaica Plain Porchfest (, where musicians play a wide variety of musical styles on porches all over the neighbhorhood. (Full disclosure:  I’m one of the organizers of this last event, along with my buddy, Marie.)

I’m wondering about your communities. Do you feel a “sense of community”? Is your community “place-based” or is it virtual or both? Is your community defined by work or family or a particular interest, or all of the above? If you don’t feel a sense of community, do you want to? And if you do, do you have any good ideas? I’d really love to hear… 

Meanwhile, here are some photos from this year’s Bake-Off! And the winner is…

Photo credit for the Bake-off pictures:  Joni Lohr
Photo credit for JP Porchfest pic:  Sam Sacks