Sarah is on a neighborhood high when I catch her on the phone. She has just experienced the warm glow of connection at her neighborhood’s annual block party the night before. The weekend after Labor Day, her neighbors take up the street, bring out a pot luck feast and laugh into the wee hours of the night. When Sarah moved into this neighborhood off of Chandler and June Streets in 1999, a pair of sisters in the house next door brought over a cake and introduced themselves. Sarah passed this gift of welcome along to all the newcomers who joined the street tribe over the years. She claims she never would have made it as a single parent if she hadn’t had her neighbors. Several of them own each other’s keys and watch over houses and pets during vacation time away. They even own a collective snow blower. Even though Sarah has no family nearby, she never had a hard time with the question of “emergency contact”. Her neighbors filled that role even picking up her son at times if he had to go home sick from school. “It really does take a village and I was lucky to land in a village,” Sarah muses, claiming that her neighbors will do almost anything for each other to make life a bit easier in a somewhat disconnected world. Sure, there are tiny spats especially over the rights to on-street parking spaces in the winter months, but all in all, her neighbors are the ones who are there for her. "We have each other's backs," she declares. She feels safe and at home. Why would she want to leave?
Think about these two questions about where you live: Could you call on a neighbor for help if you needed it? Do you trust your neighbors?
It is the quality and intensity of our real and lived social connections that can make or break our attachment to a particular place. Neighbors sometimes pick up the slack for those of us movers who are far away from family, creating a neighborhood culture of caring that binds. It only takes one or two residents to help spark a shift in a neighborhood. Block parties, collective yard sales, book clubs, game nights, seed exchanges, barbecues are all ways to build neighborhood cohesion. Melody Warnick describes a neighborhood that has had weekly Sunday night dinners for years. This tradition started with five families and has since grown to over fifty families. The host family is in charge of cooking, set up and clean-up. People come within walking distance and share that one meal together each week. If one is feeling a bit anti-social, one can just bring a Tupperware container and take the meal to go.
Melody Warnick was not up for organizing something so labor intensive as a neighborhood feast. She began with a simple “hi” to her neighbors and a determination to know everyone by name. She also ramped up her commitment by inviting one neighbor family over for a sit-down dinner. This may seem like an insignificant gesture but consider this: In fifteen years of living on our street, we have never once invited the family next door inside our house to break bread. Our kids have trick or treated together. We have talked over the fence but there is something decidedly intimate and boundary crossing in entering one’s home and sharing food.
Now technology is in the game to shrink the neighborhood into a collective. We received an invitation to sign up for Nextdoor, a free social network site that serves as an online public meeting space for a particular neighborhood. On the network, neighbors post requests for recommendations for plumbers, tree experts, painters and roofers. We may get a warning of a rash of car break-ins, a siting of a coyote wandering the street or a plea to be on the lookout for a lost dog. One woman two streets away was distraught last month because a car had hit and killed her dog. Fostering an active online neighborhood may not be as intimate as having a neighbor over for dinner. However, keeping tabs on what is happening on the streets outside our doors makes the neighborhood feel less anonymous and safer.