Why Neighborhoods Still Matter

Peter Lovenheim

WHEN I FIRST APPROACHED MY neighbor, Lou Guzzetta, to ask if I could sleep over, he readily agreed. He warned, however, that there might not be much to see.

“You can write about me,” he said, “but it will be boring. I have nothing going on in my life, nothing. My life is zero. I don’t do anything.”

That turned out not to be true, but I understood what he meant. In recent years, the pace of Lou’s life had slowed.

Lou was 81. His six children were grown and scattered around the country. His wife, Edith, had died five years earlier.

“When people learn you’ve lost your wife,” he told me, “they all ask the same question. ‘How long were you married?’ And when you tell them 52 years, they say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful!’ But I tell them no, it isn’t. I was just getting to know her.”

My effort to get to know my neighbors by sleeping over at their houses began nearly a decade ago with a tragedy on my suburban street in Brighton, NY, outside Rochester. Down the street lived a family: a husband and wife, their 12 year-old daughter and 11 year-old son. Both parents were physicians. One night, the husband came home and shot and killed his wife, then himself. The children ran screaming into the night. Soon after, the kids moved to another part of town with their grandparents. In effect, this whole family, who had lived on my street for seven years, had vanished overnight.

Yet the impact on our street seemed slight.

I hadn’t known the family well― only enough to wave or say hello. In asking around, I learned that no one else on the street seemed to know them well, either. In fact, as far as I could tell, no one on my street knew anyone beyond a casual, superficial level.

I asked myself, “do I live in a neighborhood, or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate from my own?” I didn’t like living among strangers. I wanted to feel connected to the people around me. I wondered, though, how to break through the social barriers and get to know my neighbors beyond a superficial level?

I recalled sleeping over at friends’ houses, as a kid. The part I most enjoyed was waking up the next morning and coming down to breakfast with my friend’s family. At the table were people who previously were mostly strangers to me―my friend’s dad and my friend’s older sister. Listening to the conversation, however, I’d get a sense of what their day would be like and what their relationships were to each other. Then the next time I visited my friend’s house, it didn’t feel like a strange place. I gained a sense of what life inside that house was like.

That was the beginning of what I came to think of as a social experiment. I wanted to see if I could get to know my neighbors in a meaningful way by observing them from inside their own homes and to do so, if they’d let me, by sleeping over. What would I learn? How might it change my neighborhood?

According to recent studies, Americans have 50% fewer meaningful contacts with neighbors today than they did 50 years ago. This applies both to high-rise apartment buildings and to homes in the suburbs. To be sure, one can find warm, close-knit neighborhoods in every American city and suburb but, sadly, these are exceptions to the general trend.

Sociologists offer many reasons for the increasing isolation. Two-career couples mean fewer people are home during the day. We spend more time watching television and on the Internet. Front porches have largely disappeared. Lot and house sizes in the suburbs have nearly doubled, increasing the physical distance between neighbors. At one time, putting up a fence in the back yard was considered a slightly hostile act, but today, new homes often come with the fences already built.

Then there is the pervasive fear of strangers. It used to be that a stranger was just someone whom we had not yet met; today, a stranger is someone who poses a threat, and a whole generation has been raised hearing of “stranger danger.”
On that first sleepover, when I had arrived with my overnight bag, Lou welcomed me in right away. He hung up my winter coat. He had a full head of silver-gray hair, bright hazel-blue eyes, and a broad chest. He walked with the confident bearing of a man who had enjoyed a long career as a surgeon. His little gray Schnauzer, Heidi, yapped and jumped at my feet.

In the living room, Lou sat on the sofa; Heidi lay nearby. He wore a Christmas-red, button-down sweater over an olive green polo shirt and khaki slacks. He sipped a gin and tonic. His speech was slurred―frankly, he seemed a little drunk―and he was coughing. The cough, he said, was because he’d started smoking again.

Lou and Edie raised six children― five girls and a boy. One daughter, who lived in Portland, Oregon, called that day. So did another, his youngest, from San Diego, CA. Only two of Lou’s children lived nearby, both about 20 minutes away. They would stop by to visit, he told me, but more often in the summer than the winter.

“How long can you go this time of year without anyone coming to the house?” I asked.

“Three or four weeks,” he replied.

Lou might have been exaggerating. Later, I observed that at least one of his children seemed to visit weekly, but a week alone was still, for him, a long stretch of solitude.

In living alone, Lou represents many Americans today. According to recent census figures, more than 27% of American homes, meaning houses, apartments, and condos, are occupied by just one person. That is more than 30 million people living alone (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey).

For these Americans, the sense of isolation can be especially acute―but people living with others can also feel isolated.
There was Deb, for example, who lived next door. Just 32 and recently married, she was an entrepreneur busy with work, sports, and her social life. Yet, Deb also expressed a desire to be closer to her neighbors. One day, as I accompanied her when she walked her dog, I pointed to houses on both sides of our street and asked if she knew the people who lived there. “No, no clue, nope,” she responded. In fact, though she’d lived on our street for three years, she had few relationships with any of the residents “other than waving,” as she put it.

She seemed frustrated not to have made those connections.

Did she meet people while walking the dog?

“You can have a brief conversation with people,” she said, “but then you notice that it’s the same conversation 10 times. And then there’s the thing where people introduce their dogs and not themselves! What’s with that? And the really irritating thing,” she continued, grimacing, “is that I’ve started doing it myself.”

At the other end of our street lived Bill, his wife, and their two teens. Bill grew up in a small town in the Midwest and spoke nostalgically about the sense of community he recalled as a boy.

“In a little town, people can be controlling, snoopy, and there’s an incredible lack of privacy,” he acknowledged. “But on the other hand, they are your friends when you’re sick. When you get a little dowdy in your old age, that’s where your support comes from. One of the tragedies of modern life is that kind of network becomes very hard to maintain. Instead, we live too much as strangers to each other.”

And then I met Patti. She had lived three doors down from me for three years, but I knew nothing of her, not even her name, until someone suggested I get in touch with her. When we met, I learned Patti was a radiologist. Sadly, a couple of years earlier, she had diagnosed her own breast cancer. On top of that, she was recently divorced and now the single mom of two young girls. If anyone on our street needed support, it was her. As her illness progressed, she lost the ability to drive and she needed help getting to doctors appointments, shopping, and running other errands. If she was delayed getting home, Patti needed someone to watch her daughters after school. That’s when my goal shifted. Would it be possible to patch together a real community of neighbors to help support Patti?

In this age of cheap long distance, discount airlines, and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, people sometimes wonder if neighborhoods still matter. I believe they do, and I believe it even more strongly than when I undertook this project.

Neighborhoods matter because we are all mortal. In an emergency, a friend even 10 minutes away can be a friend too far. Sometimes, only the person across the street or next door can be there quickly enough to help.

Neighborhoods matter because all our resources are finite. If you are baking, and send your spouse to the supermarket at night in a snowstorm for a six-ounce bottle of vanilla, as my neighbor, Deb, admits to having done, you are wasting gas, energy, and time. It’s quicker, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly simply to borrow the vanilla from a neighbor. Same goes for a cup of sugar, eggs, a stepladder, or a shovel―whatever you need in a pinch, it can likely be borrowed. A new Web site, http://www.nextdoor.com, provides a safe and private way for neighbors to talk and share online.

Neighborhoods matter because the people who live near us can enrich our lives in ways we can only know if we know them. There was a woman, Grace, who had walked through our neighborhood every day for forty years―yet hardly anyone had ever stopped to talk with her. When I finally met and interviewed Grace―by then she was in her 80s―I learned that as a young woman, she had studied music at the Julliard School in New York, and was an accomplished harpist and pianist. What a waste, I thought: all those years she could perhaps have given music lessons to children in the neighborhood. But someone would have had to know her to be aware of her musical talents.

And neighborhoods matter because our society has become fragmented. We divide ourselves by ethnicity, income, city versus suburb, or red state versus blue. It wasn’t meant to be this way. American colonists built their settlements around a central green or common meeting house―people saw each other and talked over the issues of the day. Neighborhoods were meant to be a fundamental building block of a healthy civil society. If we want to start repairing the social fabric of our country and become more tolerant of people whose beliefs differ from ours, the building we live in or the block we live on is a very good place to start.

If you want to strengthen your own neighborhood, here are some techniques that many healthy, close-knit neighborhoods employ:

-Create a neighborhood directory and/or map. Put everyone's contact information on it and distribute it to everyone in the neighborhood, especially newcomers.

-Host neighborhood-wide events at least monthly. Annual picnics are nice but generally don't provide traction. More frequent events, e.g., “Wednesdays on the Porch” work better. Also, try holiday celebrations, e.g., a Fourth of July bike parade for kids, maybe with a town fire truck in the lead, a Labor Day back-to-school barbeque, Christmas caroling, or a progressive New Year’s Eve celebration at five or six neighbors’ homes (so no one has to drive after celebrating).
Encourage residents to shift some traditional backyard activities to the front yard―such as planting flowers or vegetable gardens, or games such as badminton. This gets people out front and visible so when others walk by they can say hello and chat.

-Use online services to enhance communication. There are social networking sites designed especially for neighbors: http://www.MeetTheNeighbors.org works well for high-rise apartment buildings; http://www.i-Neighbors.org for suburban communities.

-Try to create some shared property―convert an empty lot into a pocket park or a foreclosed house into a community-owned rental facility. Perhaps even just take down a fence or two to create a joint vegetable garden.
The good news is, to strengthen our neighborhoods, we don’t have to sleep over. All we need to do is make a phone call, send an e-mail, or ring the bell. I’m pretty sure that on the other side, we’ll find someone who will welcome the visit. Why not start today?


Peter Lovenheim lives in Rochester, N.Y., where he teaches writing at Rochester Institute of Technology. To learn more about In the Neighborhood, including Five Ways to Strengthen your Neighborhood, visit: http://peterlovenheim.com. Lovenheim’s book, In the Neighborhood won the 2011 Zocalo Public Square Book Prize for “the book that most effectively–and most creatively, strikingly, or enjoyably–enhances our understanding of community.”