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The Community in Times of Need  

The Mexican Fisherman’s Simple and Satisfied Life

Once upon a time, an American businessman was on vacation in a seaside village in Mexico. There he met a fisherman docking his boat after a catch. Impressed with the fish’s quantity, the American asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed. “I have an MBA from Harvard, and can help you,” he said. “You should spend more time fishing and buy a bigger boat with the proceeds. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, and eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middle-man, you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening up your own cannery. You could control the product, processing, and distribution,” he said. “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”  

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?” The American replied, “Oh, 15 to 20 years or so.” “But what then?” asked the Mexican. The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time was right, you would announce an IPO, and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!” “Millions – then what?” The American said, “Then you could retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your community.”

This parable gracefully reveals to us the basic needs for a full and happy life: livelihood security, having a family, friends, pastimes and, in general, belonging to a community. It also exposes the pitfalls of rat-racing wealth hoarding, being similar in wisdom to the Biblical Parable of the Rich Fool which warns of greed because “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:16-21). As the fisherman told the businessman, he works enough so as to “support his family’s immediate needs”. Now do not take this literally as an indictment against owning a business, but ponder about how the fisherman was happy living in the moment –carpe diem in Latin- and fulfilled his family’s multigenerational needs.

The Concept of “Gemeinschaft” and Its Importance in Urbanism

One concept of urbanism present in our little story was that of “gemeinschaft” or community. This implies proximity and a concrete geographical setting such as that seaside village, but it also provides routine and familiarity to the human life. But modernity, especially since the widespread urbanization, has bred a new kind of alienation or solitude of the city dweller. Alvin Toffler described in his 1980 book “The Third Wave” how the industrial revolution ended living in the same household with your extended family.

Immigration historian Oscar Handlin portrayed in “Uprooted” (1950) the archetype of immigrants as peasants guided by religious convictions with no familiarity with wage work or urban settings. Further still, University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth studied the psyche of big city residents in “Urbanism as a Way of Life” (1938), arguing that three characteristics of cities lead to a peculiar “urban personality”: large population sizes, social heterogeneity and population density.

However, others have argued that there is no universal “urban way of life”; instead, ethnicity plays a more important cultural role. Sociologists Herbert Gans in the “The Urban Villagers” (1965) and William F. Whyte in “Street Corner Society” (1943) believed that people tend to maintain their pre-existing cultures and personalities. Places like Little Italy in New York or North End in Boston fulfilled “an important but unrecognized function in the city by providing a stable community for newcomers from different parts of the world and for people with low incomes.” We can see how ethnic neighborhoods were a lifeline for multigenerational needs.

eighborhoods were a lifeline for multigenerational needs.

From top left corner: futurist Alvin Toffler (1928-2016), author of “The Third Wave” (1980); immigration historian Oscar Handlin (1915-2011), author of “Uprooted” (1950); sociologist Louis Wirth (1897-1952), author of “Urbanism as a Way of Life” (1938); sociologist Herbert Gans (1927-), author of “The Urban Villagers” (1965); and ethnographer William F. Whyte (1914-2000), author of “Street Corner Society” (1943)

What about contemporary immigrants and foreign ethnics who settle in a new country and city? How can these people fulfill their multi-generational gemeinschaft needs? In the 2021 Québécan short film “Ousmane”, a home-sick francophone immigrant from the West-African country of Burkina Faso is likened to an elderly woman with dementia who was tragically abandoned by her daughter. The film’s director, an immigrant himself, thus tried to portray the mutual feeling of invisibility that these groups of people bear and to advertise their need of a caring community above all else, rather than contentious state welfare. The deep humanity resonating from this story can guide our understanding of the importance of “gemeinschaft”.

Capture from the short-film “OUSMANE” (2021) by Jorge Camarotti – “Feeling uprooted and looking for a purpose, Ousmane, a newly arrived Burkinabé immigrant living in Montreal, has his life take a turn when he meets an elderly, disoriented lady, Edith, at the end of a long workday. After learning about Edith’s terrible living conditions, but not fully understanding what the task entail, he naively decides to take on the role of her caregiver as if she was his own mother.” 

Our western cities, increasingly aging and multicultural, will need to adapt to new demographics. Moving forward, a key multi-generational spatial need lies in a revitalized neighborhood which can emulate a non-material, community-based living. It will be the task of planners to imagine the future which will take care of everyone’s multigenerational spatial needs, be them young or old, immigrant or native.

This article is published in the booklet of the Geo Promotion Conference 2023, themed “0 to 100: Solving multi-generational spatial needs”

Thommy Pantis
Thommy Pantis
Bachelor student of Spatial Planning and Design at RUG's faculty of Spatial Sciences. Interested in public administration, local politics and media.
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