On Neighbors

Here’s my two cents on the topic that local bloggers NYCO and Balogh are currently kicking around on neighborliness.

Balogh started this with a call to be more neighborly. He reasons, after all, that neighborhoods are the building blocks of our communities. If we want to nourish a sense of community we must start with the grassroots.

NYCO stakes out turf on the “good fences make good neighbors” side of the argument. While she isn’t averse to checking out the occasional block party or garage sale, she defends people’s right to be left alone. She points out that old-growth suburbs like hers in Fairmount developed precisely because families wanted to get out of the more crowded cities and have a little room. She also points out that there isn’t any real structured activity in neatly appointed suburbs that would bring people together to work on a common project.

I fall a little closer to Balogh on this one. In some neighborhoods, people live together for years and don’t know anything about each other–and my experiences are in the cheek-by-jowl living space of the city. We have made a point of getting to know our adjacent neighbors, inviting them for dinner etc. I am glad we made the effort because four of the families have changed in the six years we have lived here. Two of the families were older women who passed away after living by themselves for several years. Despite our efforts, we still know only a fraction of our neighbors on our relatively short block.

The interesting part of NYCO’s argument is her assertion that we seem disconnected from our neighbors because our harried lives work against our being more neighborly. We work hard and we’re tired when we get home. She points out that this kind of lifestyle promotes cocooning–staying home and entertaining ourselves. This has been a big issue in sociolgical circles for many years. Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam documented the fraying of our social capital: “. . .we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.”

Balogh is very concerned about this trend: “Will we continue to try to build in all of the conveniences of the outside world into our home – movie theatres? home offices? work out rooms? craft and sewing rooms?”

While the personal approach doesn’t get at the big picture problems and may be treating the symptoms instead of the disease in NYCO’s opinion–but it is all we can really do. If NYCO is right and we’re all too stressed out and tired to interact with our neighbors, how are we going to summon up the energy to change the sociological trends involving increased work hours, consumption and sprawl–the intertwined pathologies of modern-day life? Baby steps. Bring a coffeecake to the neighbor. Shovel the elderly homeowner’s walk. Do what you can do.

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