Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating Community in Your Neighborhood: The Why and How

The quality of my life hinges on the quality of my connections to my community. At the core of this is my connection to my immediate family (my husband and children), and to my extended family (our parents, sisters, etc). Beyond the realm of family and friends are our neighbors. We choose our friends but, as with family, we do not often get to choose our neighbors. And yet I feel my neighbors to be vitally important to my well-being and that of my family.

My tree full of neighborhood kids

In all of the places I have lived in my lifetime I have always found good neighbors. There have been bad ones, too, of course, but there have always been good ones and those are the ones who have mattered. Years later I am still friends with several of my old neighbors in (now) faraway places.

What I have learned is that you don't have to grow up in a place to feel at home there- to feel a sense of community. You don't have to be just like your neighbors, or even share their interests. Age, family structure, race, religion, politics, and education do not matter when it comes to neighbors. You don't need to have the same hobbies or read the same books. You live in the same neighborhood- you share physical space- and that is enough common ground to form the basis of a good neighborly relationship in most cases. Proximity creates common interests and common challenges.

This blog post has been brewing in my mind for weeks and last night I read two things that pushed me over the edge into writing it. The first was a post by Teri from Homestead Honey. She wrote,

"I notice that when people talk about homesteading, there is a huge emphasis on "Self-Sufficiency". Feed yourself, create your own power, collect your own water. And yes, these tasks are very important, particularly in this age of GMO crops and climate change. But in this year of homesteading in Missouri, I have come to recognize that the most important task I have as a homesteader is to create networks of interdependence in my community. Last week we helped raise Mike and Julia's round pole timber frame home. This week they are helping us. John grows my pork and beef. I help educate his children. When someone needs help, we give, and when we need help, we receive." (italics mine)

I would say her observation extends beyond homesteaders to people in general. I think that the most important task we have as neighbors, as citizens, is to create networks of interdependence in our communities. We were not made to live this life alone. We were not made to struggle independently in self-contained, self-sufficient bubbles. Indeed, we evolved to share the burden (and the rewards).

But first, a little bit about my own situation: We bought this house two and a half years ago and intend to stay here for a very long time, possibly the rest of our lives. Our neighborhood is tiny; there are sixteen houses and, of those, four are businesses, leaving us with twelve households. There is a somewhat rural feel here (each house has an acre or two or three) and we don't get any through traffic in the neighborhood at all. Several of my neighbors have lived here for over thirty-five years. I have met all of the people in my neighborhood except for the ones who live in the house furthest away from mine. (Some neighbors welcomed us to the neighborhood and some I had to seek out on my own.) Six of the households regularly get together for potluck dinners. Those are the numbers.

A crawfish boil potluck. The kids are holding crawfish races on the driveway.

My neighbors are weird, quirky, crotchety, independent, stubborn, resilient, funny, and generous. I hope they would say the same about me. We are very different in some ways and we are alike in many others. But, above all, we know we can rely on each other. Our elderly neighbor, Ms. B, has health problems that keep her inside. Mr. Chanclas mows her yard (over an acre of it), I clean her house, and the neighbors on the other side do her grocery shopping. When it rains hard the text messages fly: "Do u need help? Need the shop vac?" because we all know whose houses are prone to flooding. Hundreds of pounds of materials are carted up and down these streets in little red wagons, wheelbarrows, and strollers: deliveries of entire dinners, bags of used clothing, fire wood, or even bags of actual garbage for a neighbor's trash bin. My neighbor Jessie and I have a certain bag of coffee that has made its way between our houses at least 4 times, usually preceded by a 6:30 a.m. text message, "Do you have any coffee? I have lost the will to live."

Skinning a roadkill fox with my neighbors. I told you they are weird.
The other passage I read last night that rocked my world was a piece from Sharon Astyk's Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place. In it she talks about the importance of loving our neighbors. I would not have used that word- love- myself, but I found myself swayed by her argument.
"Because rather than talking about "working" with your neighbors or "getting along" I want to talk about the problem of actually loving them, despite the difficulties that the word love raises. It is the right word- it is no accident that we speak of moral obligation in these terms. In this case, I would suggest that we all think about "love", not as a particular feeling you have to evoke but as a larger structure for our relationships, a way of organizing our world."
"… it is not loving people to express things lovingly all the time. It is not loving one another simply to articulate your common ground, or to allow everyone to "express" their differences, or to be universally supportive, or to fall backward off a chair. Love is needing each other- not in easy or cheap ways, but really, truly needing one another. It does not require that you share beliefs, or even like each other- all of us can call examples from our biological families that support this fact...
In this, love is not a feeling or a particular social practice. It is the replacement, at least when possible, of a world that thinks in terms of maximization of personal profit and extraction with one that maximizes interdependence and the well-being of the group, not just the individual. And it requires that we risk depending on one another- that we give up owning every single item we might ever need personally and trust that our neighbors will share with us and we with them." (again, italics mine)

When you read this don't get too hung up on the word "love". If the thought of loving your neighbor who mows his lawn in a Speedo next to your bedroom window at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning is just too much to bear, let's start with something smaller. We can create a valuable, lasting sense of community right here in our own neighborhoods. We don't have to move to the perfect town or the perfect neighborhood or join a co-housing group or a commune. We can just start knowing our neighbors and sharing with our neighbors. It is very simple. We can do this with just three simple actions:

1) Talk to your neighbors.
2) Share food with your neighbors.
3) Depend on your neighbors and let them depend on you.

I’ll talk about these three steps in more detail in a follow-up post. For now, I charge you all with one simple homework assignment: Talk to a neighbor. Pick a neighbor you haven’t met or don’t know well and talk to him or her. Maybe you can just holler a “hello” across the driveway or maybe you can make some small talk about their dog/cat/car/hairdo. Just improvise. But the first step is to make verbal contact.

Okay. Report back with some details.


  1. I will do this. Promise. I will work on finding the good in my neighbors and connecting with them.
    But I have to say - My H and I are kinda hermits. We have our friends and such but we really crave and value alone time and our neighbors are the sort that hang out and partaaaay all night long on their front stoops with PBR's clutched in their hands.
    I just feel they would have loose boundaries is what I'm saying...
    I will need to ruminate on this a bit.
    Thank you for such a thought provoking post...You are splendid.

  2. Mr. and Mrs. PBR Partay might turn out to be okay in a limited sort of way (the occasional cup of flour, a can opener, etc). I've definitely had neighbors like that and they were good for a few things and some humorous moments. Not reliable people, but some limited neighborly contact. (Limits those loose boundaries, for example. I know just what you're talking about.)

  3. I like this and we like our neighbors. It's nice to know they're looking out for you.

  4. Neighbors and community have always been important to me as well. I used to live in an artist loft where we all knew each other and worked together to make the building what it was and plan art events, etc.. That was a no brainer though, since we were all artists and that was what we had in common. I moved out of there, to buy a house in a very culturally diverse neighborhood, and getting to know my new neighbors was a bit more challenging. One thing that helped was my front-yard garden. When I would be out working in the garden, I think it gave people something to come over and talk to me about. Some of the neighbor kids have gotten older and don't come over as much anymore, but they used to come over a lot to see the chickens. They were fascinated by them. One year, I had ten neighborhood kids, from ages 4-11 and from 3 different countries, all helping me plant stuff in my garden. It was cool that they were all so interested in that. Anyway, I get what you are saying and love that you have that in your neighborhood. Thanks for sharing and great post!

    1. Lilly, what awesome experiences you've had! I especially love the moment in the garden with the kids. A front-yard garden is a really awesome way to attract the neighbors. We grew a few tomato plants out front in our old neighborhood and everybody and their dog wanted to talk to me about them.

  5. What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.


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