Ashton Lyle: In Benicia, city-wide events rekindle community connections even amidst digital division

But they won’t survive without your attendance and support

By Ashton Lyle, July 31, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

Benicia’s annual 3rd of July parade is a treasured tradition for my family and many others in town. I remember fondly the many times I walked in the parade (beginning as a seven-year-old with the Benicia Stingrays), and later, the occasions I wandered main street festivities with friends. This year I again found myself strolling First Street, but for the first time, instead of watching the participants, I was concentrated on the sizable crowd gathered downtown and reveling in the beauty of Benicia’s community.

This is an increasingly rare opportunity for me, and not just because, like many others my age, I am increasingly separated from the town’s physical community. Alarmingly, this separation from one’s community is systemic, driven by a decline in community events like our cherished parade. The digital world has continued to encompass more of our lives and America’s towns have necessarily mirrored the expanding proportion of time we live and socialize online. The togetherness of community-wide events has begun to fade from contemporary life, and, in turn, our public interactions have naturally evolved to fit the controversy-focused digital medium they take place on.

Perhaps this explains how much of our relations with other Americans are characterized by discontent. As Americans have grown to become increasingly disconnected from the physicality of the humanity which surrounds us, we’ve grown increasingly polarized in our social and political worldviews. Add to this the public nature of digital communication, and it’s no surprise that acrimonious interactions have become a more visible part of daily life.

The injection of hostility into our relationships with our neighbors is an especially concerning development for the suburbs, where the nature of demarcated living only amplifies the human tendency to show elevated aggression towards strangers. Privacy and the near-total sanctity of one’s home, once reserved for the rural few, have become the standard of American life. Whereas multi-unit housing and city life, broadly constructed, requires constant concessions to the humanity of those around us, in the form of noises, smells, or even time (for example, spent waiting for a shared laundry machine to open), the suburban homeowner is the de-facto ruler of their private domain.

The shift towards understanding the ideal life as an increasingly individualized and private, separated from communal living, is now a cultural norm reflected in our public lives. While it forms a core tenant of the imagined “American Dream,” the perception of self-reliance is disconnected from the reality of living in a community, as each facet of suburban life, from its roads to its schools, is determined through collaborative community (i.e., political) processes. Even as our entertainment media and political discourse highlight independence and self-sufficiency as a value of the highest order, the reality of any number of anti-social tendencies in our society, from polarized discourse to indiscriminate violence, is indicative of the need to reconnect with those with whom we are building a shared future.

The need for community returns me to the 3rd of July parade. The parade, and events like it, are a beautiful reminder that the bitterness and alienation present in the online nature of contemporary life don’t need to transfer into real-life interactions. I’m heartened by the reminder that the discourse of Twitter, CNN, and even blockbuster films is still distinct from how Americans actually interact with each other and how Benicia residents can come together.

During such a controversial age, fostering a growing sense of community in Benicia is essential. I have written in previous columns about the material changes which could keep people in town, namely more housing and social opportunities to keep the existing community together while allowing for new, sustainable growth. But there is, of course, more to be done.

Community-wide events can only thrive with the broad support of residents and are therefore constantly under threat of disappearance. As the City of Benicia struggles to balance its budget, citizens now more than ever must manifest the necessity of city-wide events through their attendance. We can take our friends and families to one of the notable events hosted by the Parks and Recreation Department, for example, Movies Under the Stars. Shared community spaces, like the garden downtown, could be expanded to include new locations in other neighborhoods and the block parties I remember from years past, organized by good-hearted neighbors, can be resurrected. We can support the events of Benicia Main Street, such as the weekly Farmer’s Markets and the recent Waterfront Festival.

All these events work to bring the Benicia community into more frequent contact with each other, allaying the worst aspects of our increasingly digital existence. In a country increasingly defined by its discontent towards one another, pulling our community together, with space for difference and new voices, is a stand against the forces of division.