Being Neighborly

photo by Our City Forest @

Growing up, I knew everyone in my neighborhood. The girls across the street were my babysitters, and they let me sit in the funky purple bedroom and play with their Barbies. The older couple who lived next door to my parents had a tiny little poodle, and the Mrs Z. liked to watch me practice my gymnastics on the lawn. The neighbors on our other side were a little standoffish, but we understood this about them and still waved as they passed in their beige car. There was an older woman who nurtured a fantastic garden in her backyard. She taught me my first words in French: “J’adore les fleurs.” The people behind us had children, and my brother and I would stay out late playing kickball and running barefoot in their tall grass until it grew dark and we could no longer see the ball. I loved knowing my neighbors, and I suppose I have tried to reproduce similar kinds of connections no matter the type of community in which I found myself living.

Being a good neighbor has always been important to me. In graduate school, a cool guy named Roger lived downstairs and we regularly got together on Thursday nights to share dinner and watch Seinfeld, Friends and Melrose Place. In exchange for Roger’s many kindnesses — like his terrific banana bread and fettuccine — I tried not to wear my clogs inside my apartment because I knew if I did, well, my floor was his ceiling, so it would have been like stomping directly on his head.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and suddenly my husband and I found ourselves living in our first home: a cedar-sided, contemporary on a cul-de-sac. We didn’t know anyone, and no one seemed to want to know us. I was lonely. I couldn’t help myself; I set out to figure out who everyone was. Walking from house to house, I asked people if they would supply their names, their children’s names, and email addresses, so I could create a big ole neighborhood directory. As it turned out, nearly everyone was interested! In fact, in meeting my new neighbors, many people confessed they were embarrassed that they had lived in their homes as long as they had without knowing the people who lived on either side of them, but they always added, it seemed too much time had gone by to ask.

I was happy to be the New Girl and, at the very least, help everyone learn each other’s names. We distributed the directory digitally and used it to organize garage sales, to remind people to drive a little more slowly in the summer, to announce births and graduations, to share pertinent neighborhood information. People would thank me, and I would always tell them creating the list wasn’t a completely selfless act.

I did it because I liked, no . . .  I needed to know my neighbors.

Not too long ago, I sat down for cupcakes and coffee with Peter Lovenheim, the parent of a former student of mine. Peter is the author of the book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community On an American Street One Sleepover at a Time, a non-fiction narrative which chronicles a murder-suicide that rocked his neighborhood in 2000. He wondered how such a thing could happen in the neighborhood in which he lived: the same neighborhood in which he had grown up.

In his book, Lovenheim sets out on a mission to meet his neighbors, to try to make sense of what happened on the night the tragedy occurred. In the process, he meets families and pets and witnesses daily routines, asks what it is that makes a place a home, and a street more than merely an address. In reaching out, he finds others also searching for connection and longing for what used to be and, in doing so, he inadvertently becomes a “connector,” bringing people together to help each other. Lovenheim writes:

In the Hebrew Bible, the word most often translated as “neighbor” rea can mean variously: friend, tribesman, fellow Israelite – pretty much anyone not a close relative or foreigner. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), therefore, is a broad injunction to treat kindly most of the people we encounter daily. But rea also has the narrower meaning of a person living nearby: “A close neighbor is better than a distant brother,” advises Proverbs 27:10.

In this age of texting and Skyping, email and Facebook, we have what I call the illusion of connection, but I believe many people crave deeper connections with each other. More neighborly connections. Quiet moments when people who may not share any kind of common past can share a street, can know each other enough to agree to take in each other’s mail, to water each other’s flowers, to feed each other’s pets, maybe watch each other’s children, share each other’s joys and — if it feels right — extend themselves during times of sorrow. In the very least, they can wave hello.

These days, my husband and I (along with our 11-year-old son) live in a different neighborhood. And with the exception of a few folks, I recognize nearly everyone in my neighborhood. Okay, so maybe I don’t have to sleepover at everyone’s house, the way Peter Lovenheim did, but it’s nice to be neighborly. I love that my son knows the neighborhood kids. In warm weather, they jump on trampolines, squirt each other with water guns, and play with LEGOs in people’s basements. In the winter, they sled together, slim slices of color against the white snowy field. With the help of neighborhood email, annual Halloween parades are arranged and concerns about suspicious vehicles are passed along. A Book Club was born, and a piano was last seen being rolled across the street from one house to another.

I have found that when you get down to brass tacks, many people don’t know their neighbors. Not really. When you ask people if they know their neighbors, many say, “Sure.” But if you probe deeper, you find that most people don’t know who lives in which house, what people do, the last names of their immediate neighbors. People living next door to each other don’t know each other — at all. Folks drive in: garage doors go up, garage doors go down. I’m not saying this is an inherently horrible thing. I’m just asking people to think about the scenario that happened in Brighton, NY in 2000.

Could you borrow a cup of sugar from someone right now? Would it feel weird to even ask? Do you have someone in your immediate vicinity whom you could go to if you felt unsafe? Because in an emergency, having to drive ten minutes to a friends’ house is sometimes too far.

In this New Millenium, where there is so much media hype telling us to be afraid, knowing one’s neighbors can offer a lot of solace.

Peter Lovenheim is on tour speaking in various venues about his book. If you are lucky, you will catch him!

Do you know your neighbors? A little? A lot? How important are your neighbors in your life?

tweet me @rasjacobson

19 thoughts on “Being Neighborly

  1. Wow. This is powerful stuff, Renee. Knowing your neighbors is extremely important; I believe that most people want to be neighborly, they just don’t know how. It is great that you took the initiative in your former neighborhood to pull people together. It goes beyond just knowing your neighbors; it is building a nurturing community that is so vitally important these days, and since we have so many distractions today that we didn’t have 30 years ago, it doesn’t happen organically. We all have to make the effort. It is worth it; for us adults and our children.

  2. Yes, I could borrow a cup of sugar right now, or a ladder. I could leave the kids, knowing someone would be looking out for them. I have their numbers and I know where they work. I even know what contraception they use! A few weeks ago my neighbour’s car broke down not far away and five people from our street had a great laugh pushing her back home 🙂

    Our front doors are always open, and we come in and out of each others houses as we wish. But never after 10pm…

    It’s a lovely community, I have rarely lived in an unfriendly community (and I have lived in a LOT of places). I rather suspect that all this stuff about society falling apart is down to idiots in the media who wish to sensationalise, frighten, play to people’s fears and titillate. Plato thought society was falling apart, yet here we are. Still worrying about the same old stuff.

  3. We live in a cul-de-sac and it is exactly how you described! We are all friendly, get together for bbqs, the kids all play together, and we are like a family. I would have it no other way!

  4. haha, Renee…the piano sale in less than a day was amazing! We are so lucky to have YOU as a neighbor! xxoo TG

  5. We chose our current neighborhood because it reminded us both of the neighborhood of our childhood, where we too ran with the neighbors til dark and shared sugar and stories with our neighbors. After six years, we’re still just getting to know our neighbors, but feel that most everyone on our street (Candy Lane in Manlius, for those of you who either grew up here or knew someone else who did) moved onto this street for the same reasons. The street is filled with young families, adults with college/post college age kids, and new grandparents. It seems that most everyone here moved onto the street to raise their family, and even those whose kids have long since moved out adore seeing the kids run in the street!!! We could win the lottery tomorrow, but we’d never leave this street or this group of neighbors. New furniture, maybe an addition for an office…but this is where we intend to stay.

  6. I agree. In today’s society, people are very impersonal. That was part of the reason I left Facebook. I had some very close friends on there who I speak to on a regular basis and then all these other “friends” that I really didn’t know well.

    I know a few people on my block by their first name. People in my neighborhood do not want to know your last name, what you do, etc. There are two people on my block I know I could count on if I needed to. I live in one of the blighted neighborhoods of New Orleans where there is still a great deal of work to be done. I have a vacant lot beside me, an abandoned house on the other side of the lot due to be torn down, and then on the other side of me another abandoned house. Drug deals are done and people are killed around the corner form me on the monthly.

    Where I live, it is better to be careful and approach things slowly because you really can’t trust all your neighbors. It is sad but true in our case. That being said, there are also some amazingly good people here who have lived here forever. It is an old neighborhood with generations of family dating way back. I live beside Mardi Gras Indians and Skelton Krewe; they are the fabric and soul of New Orleans. They are good people. The younger generation (30 and younger) here are the problem. It is quite sad. They are bringing the violence and drugs in. The people here are working hard to bring about change and I have high hopes that eventually we will see a neighborhood directory as we surge forward. I think the directory is a fabulous idea (like you, growing up, I played until after dark and knew everyone).

    This post is encouraging to me. It becomes to easy to sit in my house and not get out and meet people. It is that way too often as you pointed out. Thanks for the reminder to branch out.

  7. Miami is a place where you don’t have to learn English. Speakers of Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Jamaican Creole have enclaves and a mutual support network that can act independently of natural born English majority. WHAT DIDI JUST SAY? THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ENGLISH MAJORITY! Miami Dade County is 80% foreign born. There are no common denominators here to bind people. Veterans Day? What that? Certain religious denominations (which are growing) do not have Christmas or Halloween. Get the picture? They look at us as though we are the foreigners. I am a stranger and a foreigner in my own country.

    There is only one redeeming factor here. When a hurricane like recent Wilma and Katrina wipes us out with no electric for two weeks , homes and and food and people all open up to all, stranger or not. It is a remarkable sign of community that enlivens itself in disaster. Not much of a condolence though. Soon reverts to siege mentality I want to live somewhere where the people know who Mickey Mantle was.

  8. Without children at home any more, it is harder to get to know your neighbors. We live in a gated community with a clubhouse, but most of our real friends do not live on our street. I found the greatest ice breaker is walking my daughter’s dog! People actually stop and talk to you, if you have a dog. Some people still haven’t figured out that the white Eskimo dog is not ours. We know the people on either side. One single woman asks us to watch her house when she is away, though she always hires someone to do just that. I guess she figures it is an added layer of protection – just in case.

    The couple on the other side is another story. They have a very small white ball of fluff with sharp teeth that passes for a real dog, even to the point that Muffin is never on a leash – against the laws of our community and of the county. But Muffin has a nasty temper and loves to attack my daughter’s dog with no provocation. I spoke to the owner several times about the leash, even warned him about the law. I finally had to report him, since there was a real danger of her hurting my daughter’s dog or my daughter. Guess what? He doesn’t talk to us any more. But I never see the dog outside any more either.

  9. Another excellent post.
    I love the way you exploited your newcomer status to bring change to your neighbourhood. I think that when you move in, you have a period of grace in which you can approach people and say: Hey, I don’t know you because I’m new, so hello, etc. If you leave it too long, you make it to the nodding and accommodating without real personal contact stage – and then it feels awkward to trade up to actual friendliness. Often people – newcomers – feel they have to wait till they settle in before they try to make contact with people. Completely wrong. By waiting they are squandering the chance.

    It’s a bit like with shy people. A shy person often seems arrogant or standoffish – even though they may be crying out for conversation. It’s the same with neighbours. If you’re lucky – like I have been – people will reach out to you as soon as you arrive. I had a cup of tea next door before I had one in my own house. That was wonderful. But even if you are as lucky, you still cannot rely solely on people reaching out to you. You have to reach out yourself. Well, you don’t have to. But it’s so enriching if you do.

    Also – you may think that you are self-contained – or that you have a social network via your job or your friends – and that you have no need of nosy neighbours poking into your life. Just wait till your circumstances change. You become pregnant, go on maternity leave – all of a sudden your horizons are much nearer. Perhaps you lose your job – and your social life. That’s the scary sell for knowing your neighbours. But the positive sell works for me.

  10. Great blog! I live in the city, and, although it’s my nature to be somewhat private at home, I have really come to believe in the importance of knowing your neighbors. Fortunately, I have neighbors like you who help with that! We have an email list, an annual block party, etc. We have worked together over the past few years in dealing with some challenging issues in the neighborhood, and we have a better neighborhood for it!

    I’m also a big believer in front-porch sitting. Although I love my deck and my little backyard, I make a point to sit out front sometime. That way I have a much better sense of who’s around the neighborhood and what’s going on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop