Death and life of a community

When trying to explain the specific characteristics of a “community” I find sometimes myself in need of an analogy, and this weekend I got offered a great one.

On saturday, we visited my in-laws who spend the summer in a village on the western Alps; it is a great little place where my family spent summers and some winters over the last fifty years, but as any mountain village not living off tourism, it has a shallow economy base: farming, some cattle but the real asset are beautiful slabs of the “Luserna stone” who are widely used as traditional roof tiles in the whole valley.

This is a very labor-intensive industry, stones need to be carved along the vein to inch-thin slabs, with as little waste as possible; the vast majority of work is done by hand, and the stonemasonry skills were trasferred from father to son for generations.

During the many years we visited this place, we witnessed this special skill going increasingly forgotten: it’s a taxing job, causing over years a lung affection called silicosis due to the cutting powder the masons inhale. Youngsters figured they could earn a better paid and less dangerous living by getting a job in one of the big automotive factories in the nearby industrial area of Turin; as a result, hillside villages upstream withered and their population got progressively older, stone quarries were abandoned and the woods reclaimed fields not cared for.

All of this started to turn around at the turn of the century, thanks to chinese immigrants who filled in the vacant stonemasons’ jobs, revived the stone quarries and re-ignited the economy. Today Barge is again a thriving little community, although many of its citizens are definitely not oldtimers of the Po Valley.

Next to the pizzerie and osterie now you can find chinese restaurants, and the windows chinese jewellery and glitzy novelty shops share the main corso with banks and cafes. Fresh coats of paint adorn an increasing number of village stone houses, and the old covered marketplace wing is now used every two to three days.

As a community, Barge thrives and withers as a function of being “lived in” by its members, and its personality reflects the aggregate personality of those who make it up. I can imagine (some of) the older villagers regretting the contributions immigrants have made to Barge, and during Sunday Mass, I realized that don Mario was particularly vehement in condemning those “who do not make efforts to integrate”, a reference who was lost on me, but probably not on his usual parishioners.

But along those mourning the good ol’ times, I bet there are shopkeepers and real estate agents who are hoping those times do not ever come back.

Very much in the same way, online communities reflect the personality of the group of people who compose it, whether this is in line or not with the stated scope of the community itself, and with or without the founders’ blessing.

Just like Barge, communities can move quickly from alive to dead and to alive again, and just like Barge, unless you live them, you don’t really understand them.

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