«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
Melanie Dzwonchyk, editor of the Leader, said that she doesn‘t make distinctions, ―unless somebody wanted to get real specific.‖ Generally, the perceptions I heard most reinforced were that Old Town was the heart of Laurel and where most of the Laurel natives lived. North Laurel, located in Howard County, was a desirable place to live because of the good housing and school options. West Laurel was also desired in terms of housing and its ―suburban‖ feel. Perhaps because none of my participants readily identified with Maryland City, it was rarely mentioned. And, Russett, the newest part of Laurel, with its neighborhood developments, is somewhat offset, meaning that the people there don‘t really mix with others in Laurel. Christine Folks even went as far to say that Russett is like a ―whole other culture.‖ Besides these basic perceptions of difference, the divisions create practical challenges as well. Journalists Gwendolyn Glenn and Dan Schwind, city councilmen Fredrick Smalls and Mike Leszcz, and resident/blogger G. Rick Wilson all commented on the importance of making distinctions when talking
being discussed or reported. Doing so is important to residents and members of city council because linking a particular section of town to a crime or otherwise negative happening could tarnish its reputation. This issue of identity and image affected all groups of my participants. Journalists said issues related to Laurel‘s identity and image affected their coverage. Accuracy with reference not only to crime, but also to the workings of the various municipal and county governments is important to image maintenance and historical record. For advertisers of primarily local small businesses, and in real estate, distinctions between sections with regard to advertisement language and placement could mean more or less sales. And for public officials and residents, maintaining a positive image of their part of town is important of their own identity. As Hummon (1990) said, people‘s personal identities are wrapped up in—or at least linked to—the identities of the communities in which they live. When meeting someone for the first time, ―questions about where one lives become queries about who one is‖ (Hummon, 1990, xiv).
The majority of participants who lived in Laurel said, either directly or indirectly, that they are proud to be residents there. The exceptions were retirees Doug and Carol, who said that throughout their nearly 40 years living in Laurel, the quality of residents, schooling, and recreation has gone downhill. But, most residents defended Laurel against what they told me were the negative perceptions of Laurel, including the fact that Old Town and West Laurel sit in Prince George‘s county, which also has a less desirable image than some
majority of participants highlighted several things that help to create a sense of community in Laurel. Those are detailed in the next section.
Things working for community A shared history The majority of participants noted that Laurel has a rich history. As shown in Chapter 5, Laurel‘s roots stretch as far back as 1658. Unlike neighboring Columbia, which was a planned community developed in the 1960s, Laurel was unplanned, and as a result, has eclectic architecture styles throughout the town which gives it a sense of historical charm. Neighborhood columnist Christine Folks, city council member Donna Crary, and local real estate agent Nate, all used the varying architecture to describe Laurel. Christine told me that she could tell whenever she was entering West Laurel because when coming across Montgomery Street, the houses go from old to newer in architectural style.
Also while I was living in Laurel, brand new ―period style‖ streetlights were installed on Main Street in an effort to maintain the authenticity of the Old Town charm. Members of Laurel city government also work to maintain the city‘s charm through zoning. Fredrick Smalls, city councilman, told me that zoning laws prohibit high rise buildings and other large commercial buildings in Old Town that would take away from the residential feel.
Old Town‘s history is also celebrated and capitalized upon. Drivers entering Laurel from Route 198 or from 7th Street are greeted by wooden signs that alert them that they are about to enter ―Historic Laurel.‖ Also in Old Town
featured at the museum at least twice each year and the Society is active in the community. Many of my participants, but especially those who lived in Old Town, said that Laurel‘s age and history were some of its primary defining features. The local newspapers could certainly do more to capitalize on this sense of history in their coverage of Laurel; they rarely mention history. Janowitz‘s (1952) analysis of Chicago community newspapers revealed their dedication to
local history. His findings are worth repeating here:
Developing and maintaining a community focus of attention involves utilization of community history, not only by specific items about local community history but more frequently through a style of writing which proudly refers to the age of individuals or to the number of years an organization has been in local existence. Even routine announcements try to emphasize the stability and persistence of organizations, and all types of anniversaries are seized upon for this purpose. The most extreme form which this type of news coverage takes can be found in the special editions celebrating the historical anniversary of the local community or
Gertrude Poe, editor of the Laurel Leader from 1939-1980, was known for capitalizing on Laurel‘s history in her reporting. She even produced a centennial booklet for the town when Laurel turned 100. Many of my participants who had far-reaching community memories referred to Poe nostalgically and talked about ―how things used to be‖ when she was editor of the paper. History of place has
Fowler, 1995). Many long-term residents share this history. Newcomers could as well, if exposed to it. The newspapers could do more to expose them to it.
Many traditions Laurel has several yearly events that draw people together in the heart of Laurel. I was lucky enough to attend three of these events—the Main Street Festival, Riverfest, and the Mayor‘s Open House. The Main Street Festival takes place in May on Main Street, and food and other vendors line the entire length of Main Street, which is closed for the day. People packed the street, and at times, walking without bumping into folks was difficult; it was a well-attended event.
Riverfest took place in September along the Patuxent River trail just behind Main Street. The event was similar in nature to the Main Street festival, but on a much smaller scale. Riverfest was not as well-attended as the Main Street Festival.
And, finally, the Mayor‘s Open House, in March, was an opportunity to get to know Laurel‘s city government as well as its non-profit organizations. The
Laurel city website described it this way:
The Mayor‘s Open House began five years ago to open the doors of the City to residents so they could get to know the people and departments that keep the City running smoothly. And in addition to meeting City staff, invitations have gone out to all local non-profit organizations in and around Laurel, so you can also check out different organizations from the Patuxent Wildlife Center to the Laurel 4th of July Committee to learn what
Other regularly scheduled events include the Fourth of July celebration, which includes a parade and fireworks, National Night Out, held in August.
Occasionally, the mayor will schedule ―City Hall in the Park,‖ and residents will come out with lawn chairs and take part in a city meeting with the mayor and city council.
All of these events, sponsored by Laurel city government, serve to bring the people of Laurel together. And they do. The events I attended were very well-attended. In my conversations with participants, several referred to these events, saying that these events are evidence of ―community.‖ Gina, a 20-yearold college student, said, I like the activities they have in the community. I try to go every year […] It was just fun growing up, going to those sorts of things … I feel like it‘s those things that they put together, either the city or the community [that] keeps us a community, like brings everyone together.
Several participants even asked me if I had been to some of these events, saying that if I hadn‘t been, I should make an effort to go, implying that these events in some way define Laurel as a community. And from my conversations with participants, for them, these events do help to define Laurel and are some of the things that mark it as special. Selznick (1992) argued that ―the bonds of community are strongest when they are fashioned from strands of shared history
residents, and so do help to strengthen Laurel as a community.
Things complicating community Diversity While sharing things in common—like history and traditions—are important to community, so is difference. Selznick (1992) argued that ―some division of labor, some system of authority, some proliferation of roles, groups, and institutions‖ is necessary for community life (p. 367). Because of our differences, we form ―multiplex relationships‖ where we serve different roles in the community depending upon our strengths and expertise. But difference is only beneficial to community when it is accepted, respected and valued.
From my observations and conversations with participants, the Hispanic population does not seem to be a recognized part of the community. This lack of recognition could be the result of the fact that the majority of the Hispanics— according to 2000 Census figures and the comments made by Pastor Mir—are in the US illegally. Illegal immigration—especially the illegal immigration of Hispanics—has become a national issue, started by former President George W.
Bush when he called for immigration reform. Most recently, controversy was sparked when Arizona governor Jan Brewer in April 2010 signed one of the strictest illegal immigration laws in the nation‘s history. According to a July 21, 2010 Associated Press article,
materials say triggers can include speaking poor English, traveling in a crowded vehicle and hanging out in an area where illegal immigrants typically congregate (Davenport, 2010).
While there is opposition to the laws, according to a McClatchy poll taken in early May 2010 ―Sixty-one percent of Americans — and 64 percent of registered voters — said they favored the law in a survey of 1,016 adults‖ (Talev, 2010).
Two of my participants, Elizbeth Ylsa Leight and Pastor Segundo Mir identified as Hispanic, though Pastor Mir was my only participant to speak directly and at length about the Hispanic population in Laurel. I did ask my participants about their feelings on illegal immigrants, but few mentioned them in our conversations.
The fact that few participants recognized Hispanics as a prominent and growing segment of the population in Laurel suggests that they may not see them as part of the community. And this ignorance or exclusion weakens the possibility for a sense of community among all residents of Greater Laurel. The next section expands upon participants‘ sense of community in and throughout Greater Laurel.
Research Question 2: Do those connected to Laurel have a sense of community in Laurel or in other groups and/or Laurel-based organizations they may be a part of? Is that sense of community guided by local news media, personal
My participants had wide and varied responses to the places where they find a sense of community, suggesting that community means something different to everyone. For instance, Melissa, a 25-year-old newcomer to Laurel, said that she feels a sense of community in the parks, where she regularly walks her dog.
The people there, she said, know one another because they see each other often.
Rick Wilson, 51-year-old Old Town resident, said he feels a sense of community
in his Catholic Church, St. Mary of the Mills:
I go to this great big Catholic church here and we always go to 10:30 Mass and actually the 10:30 Mass is, in a weird Roman Catholic way, a community. We don‘t know each other. We don‘t actually talk because we‘re Catholics, right? But, you know the faces; you know the families;
For Rick, a sense of community is about knowing people share the same values, and has little to do with the actual interactions between the members of the community. Similar examples were provided by Joan Kim, who cited her Main Street Pharmacy, and Ginger Rogers, who cited her restaurant, Toucan Taco on Gorman Avenue, as places where a sense of community exists. Ginger reported
feeling a sense of community with her regular customers:
Certainly this particular restaurant, people come in here and to them, this is their community. I mean, we know people by their first name. They
It‘s like the little extended family.