Friday, September 15, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I suppose it started for me when we moved into our first real house as a married couple. I feel silly admitting it, but I sort of expected people to show up at our door with baked goods, welcoming us to the neighborhood and introducing themselves. Days went by before I realized that not only was I not going to be visited by the welcome wagon, but people would go out of their way to pretend that they hadn't noticed that anyone had moved in. A year later, my naive self thought: "Surely the birth of our baby will bring out those neighborly instincts!" Luckily in my alternating panic, stupor, and adoration after Sprout's birth, I didn't notice the complete absence of neighborhood visitors nor the distinct lack of casseroles. Our church was very supportive when Sprout had his surgery. A woman delivered some mums leftover from a harvest service, and another asked me to drive the 20 minutes to her place to pick up some chili she'd made for us. Gaia bless the Unitarians.

When we moved to our new home, I saw the chance to make it the neighborhood I dreamed of. We set up for trick-or-treat the day after moving into our home, but few candy-beggars visited. A month later at Christmas time, I baked cookies and Beo and I delivered them to the neighbors, introducing ourselves since only our next-door neighbors had introduced themselves to us. Mostly we got looks of confusion and muttered thanks. The neighbors we knew gave us some of her own cookies a couple of days later. Reciprocity, I suppose. Was it that no one expects those kind of neighborly gifts and longer? Is it that people don't want to feel indebted to someone? Is it simply an overvaluation of privacy? After the second horrified look of a new neighbor presented with a load of fresh baked bread, I gave up. I stopped saying "Hello" when walking neighbors pretended not to hear me--or even crossed to the other side of the street. I stopped waving then every driver looked the other way--or worse, stared at me impassively. If they didn't want to be my friends, well I didn't want to be their friends either. So there.

I had settled into this frame of mind nicely. After all, we don't even have a "Neighborhood Association". It's a "Homeowner's Association". My neighbor-free life was broken only by pleasant surprises from our next door neighbors. One, a seamstress, asked if she could make Bird a Christmas Dress. Another, a pastor, offers us gifts of extra food from his church, and once even a jar of Apple Butter ("No preservatives or anything, and all of that natural stuff!" Gods bless him, too.) to thank us for sharing some excess produces. I neighbor them right back with pesto kits from the garden (complete with pine nut baggies!) and heirloom veggies (complete with history and recipe suggestions!).

My reverie of non-neighborness was broken by a conversation with my Dad. They're considering getting a play system for the kids, and my Dad asked if anyone else in our subdivsion had a play system yet. When we told him that we'd be the first, he said he thought we'd be surprised at how many friends we suddenly discovered when our play system was installed. I was a bit taken aback. Would people really bring their kids to our backyard? Did I want them to? The next week on an early morning run I spotted a play system like the model we'd been considering. It was one subdivision over. As I rounded the cul de sac, I realized that the house right across from them had a similar system, and there was a third right next door. They were all neatly fenced into their own spacious yards. I began to wonder if this lack of neighborliness had it's drawbacks after all. The following week in a more tighly packed rural suburb, I saw 3 play systems in adjoining yards. Back to back. I doubt they were even the reccomended distance apart from foreign objects. I felt tears spring to my eyes. What's more, we were on our way to an incredible neighborhood playground--just 2 blocks away.

This week on a flight to Pittsburgh I prepared myself to enjoy the bird's eye view of the country as we descended. Instead of pure amazement, I was shocked to see the rows of swimming pools that lined the backyards of the suburbs with matching houses. What about that 5th house--the one that broke the perfect line of pools? Even the smaller neighborhoods, obviously lower (middle) class even from the air, were dotted with splotches of blue. (It was very easy to find an example.) What's the point of all this chlorine?

So far I've seen our lack of neighborliness isolating our children, isolating adults, creating akwardness, and driving excess. Is there anything else? In a recent article in Plenty, the author cited two studies which seem to point to our lack of social contact as one of the key factors in our skyrocketing anxiety rates. Now not every neighborhood has fallen to this depressing phenomenon. Our good friends live in a neighborhood where neighborhood barbecues, babysitting co-ops, and even group dates are the norm. They seem to be an exception to an ever-expanding rule though. The organization I direct has a mission, which I wrote: "Neighbors Serving Neighbors in Need". We call our services of visits, rides to the doctor's office, help with grocery shopping "neighborly-type" services. The only issue is that we have to recruit and import the neighbors to help them. Let me tell you from experience: A lot of folks out there could use a good neighbor. Our program and others like it only see a growth in demand.

Do Sprout and Bird see any parity between the lively neighbors of Sesame Street and our own? Do they ever envy (as I do) Mr. Rogers' friends, delivery men, and mayor popping in to say hello and have a visit? Maybe that kind of neighborhood is as imaginary to them as Dora and Calliou's neighborhood. Maybe they don't even know that they used to really exist. Maybe the don't realize that they still can. I'm reversing my stance on the acceptance of my non-neighborly neighborhood. I'm going to be knocking on doors again this year, armed with christmas cookies. We'll make this neighborhood a community yet.


~Lori said...

Oh dear... your post brought tears to my eyes also. I've had similar experiences with neighbors. I wasn't as diligent as you in the attempts, but then I'm antisocial and easily discouraged in the area of making friends. But I remember the exact "looks of confusion and muttered thanks" from our next-door neighbors when I brought them homemade cookies. (They weren't even reciprocated!)

I thought it might be different when we moved out here to the country - well, to a rural subdivision (all 5+ acre lots), but thus far it's very much the same. It's depressing.

Maddy Avena said...

Oh dear Mia. This story that you so poignantly illustrate is (IMO) one of the symptoms of how sick our culture really has gotten.

If it's any comfort, I have a different story to tell: I live in a development too. Unlike yours, mine is surrounded by wilderness and is still a place where the elders who live here have lived here for most or all of their lives and still outnumber the elders who chose to retire here. Unlike the convenience to services and goods that you have, we're 90 miles from the closest real "city" and we all know, living up here in cowboy country, that if the shit hits the fan we HAVE TO rely on each other.
OK, so the life-long residents don't live in Brooktrails (the 'hood), but the ones who do have been here for 20+ years and go to church with the lifetimers and have adapted (more or less) to that "know your neighbor because someday your life may depend on it" school of thought.
And living in a place of fire seasons, earthquake possibilities and floods, sometimes your life *does* depend on knowing your neighbors.
I hike around here a lot and people who are driving by me (I hike on a combo of trails and streets) wave to me. In fact, when I first started hiking, I was surprised by this. I know all my closest neighbors. I know all the other big gardeners within 5 miles of my house.
Just the other day, I hiked up the mountain to Barbara and Walter's house. Barbara and Walter are from Bayside, NY and have 6 children and 7 grandchildren. I'm from Huntington NY and am about the age of their children. Walter grows the most lovely onions, but doesn't have enough room or sun for acorn squash. I do, so I strapped on a fanny pack and brought Walter a squash. He asked me what he could trade me, although it was a gift and I said, "well those onions of yours are pretty tasty," and I came home with 2 large onions.
Rosie is a gardner too, albeit mostly of flowers. She's black and her husband Donny is white. They retired up here from Oakland. She's got an Asian pear tree. I've got an overflow of tomatoes and we just harvested our Bartletts. The other day she drove to my house with Donny and brought me a bag of pears. I wouldn't let her leave without a huge bag of tomatoes and the promise of Bartletts when they ripen.
My nextdoor neighbor Sharen had an older but very clean Nissan Sentra that she thought she couldn't sell because it had a salvage title. I knew a woman in town who really needed a clean and inexpensive car and I hooked them up. Marigold bought the car in a minute and Sharen was thrilled. She slipped a thank you card between my screen and door. It had a $50 bill in it. My "finder's fee" she said. She wouldn't take it back, although I tried, so I just keep bringing her produce from the garden. Her husband Andy has a liking for my Brandywines.
And on it goes.
Don't give up and if it looks like your kids are going to see the world like Malvena Reynold's song Little Boxes, there's many of houses for sale in Brooktrails, Willits, CA.

Mia said...

Maddy, that's exactly what I've dreamed of! So Lori, maybe if things don't work out we can all pack up and have a wagon trail out to California and join Maddy's commune. :)

e4 said...

I wish you could be my neighbor. I wish I could pick my neighbors. Most of my favorite people are in completely different cities, states, timezones, continents, hemispheres... and most of the neighbors we've had over the years are miles away in a different sense.

As a culture, we have become much better at building coccoons for ourselves than building communities. No wonder there's so much stress and angst out there!

suzanne said...

Dear Mia-
I am so glad to read this. I live in an unneighborly neighborhood too. I crave the kind of community that you describe your friends having. I have had the same thoughts about swing sets and swimming pools (my father insisted on putting in one of those playsets for us even though there are two public playgrounds within walking distance). Thank you for the references on building community. If you are going to keep working on your neighborhood, I am going to keep working on mine.


Anonymous said...

Yes. I feel the same way. I have no friend I could call right now and go to their house without feeling I was intruding in one way or another. It really is sad the way we've isolated ourselves. My closest friends are far away.