Create Community: Be a good neighbor

The concept of a neighborhood has come to have an almost romantic feel for me.  My husband and I grew up in neighborhoods that ran into each other and both of us had what I would consider an ideal situation: lots of kids, friendly people and a lot of opportunities for pleasant social interaction.  In my neighborhood alone, we had a welcoming committee, Christmas cookie exchanges, a Memorial Day parade where we decorated our bikes and followed a fire truck up to the neighborhood pool and then celebrated the holiday with a carnival in the parking lot.  Oh, and we walked to school with all the kids on our street.  It felt almost…like Leave it to Beaver.

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When we bought our first home, I had so many dreams of what I hoped for in a house.  We were expecting our first child and I couldn’t wait to see what friendships our kids were going to make just a few doors down.  But a few months later, I still had yet to meet a single neighbor.  Thankfully, one evening this very kind woman walking her baby in a stroller crossed the street and introduced herself to me.  I was so grateful for her taking the initiative.  Less than a week later her husband walked over with a baby gift for our new little one.

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Neighbors used to be the first people you would befriend.  In the 1950s, 44 percent of neighbors socialized at least once a week.  Think parties, picnics, poker games and potlucks.  By 1971, it had dwindled to 24 percent and that number continues to plummet.  The internet certainly continues to claim to connect us and yet we are more disconnected than ever.  As a result, most Americans barely know a few neighbors by name and 28 percent know no one at all.

Those of us with children or pets have a built-in conversation starter.  But, if you don’t have those or truly get hives from initiating conversation, you might have a hard time meeting your neighbors.  Can you imagine, though, the benefit of wonderful neighbors??  Now, that lovely woman who introduced herself to me ultimately became a wonderful friend.  Our kids enjoy playing together and I am so thankful for her introducing herself to me.  We have since met some others who are more than just kind.  They let us borrow weed trimmers and ladders and even offer to help us plant our new bushes.  We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries together and consider them close friends.

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If you have been reading here for any length of time, you know I was captivated by the book The Turquoise Table.  (Read my review here.)  Kristen Schell was tired of not knowing her neighbors so she decided to DO something about it.  She set up a picnic table in her front yard and just started to do life out there: reading, homework, dinner, snack time, puzzles and book club.  People started to notice and she created an entire movement out of it.

Then I heard about Neighbor’s Table (clearly I have a thing with the table…) and it literally took my breath away.  Sarah was new to Dallas, didn’t know a soul and wasn’t exactly sure how to meet people.  She knew she loved entertaining so she set up a table in her backyard and set a goal to invite 500 people to her table in one year.  FIVE HUNDRED.  She invited people she knew and people she didn’t.  To date, her website states she has hosted over 2500 people.

Community is made up of people who know and care about each other.  When studying civic engagement, Warnick learned that choosing between adding 10 percent more cops on the streets or 10 percent more citizens knowing their neighbors’ first names, you should always choose the latter, it is better for crime prevention.  Think about it: you will call someone if their garage is open and you have a relationship with them.  When people care about those around them, we have a better shot at keeping crime down and place attachment high.

Do we live in a perfect neighborhood?  Definitely not.  But I’m hoping it’s a work in progress.  I am to blame too for just pulling in the garage and not engaging outside of my home.  We love our home, but more importantly, we love that we share it with the people around us.  Consider challenging yourself with a couple of actions steps below to get to know your neighbors better.

To catch up on the rest of my Create Community series, click here.

Action steps
  1. Be bold.  Wave to a neighbor you don’t know.  Say, “Can you please remind me of your name?” if they have told you before.  Make a note in your phone so you don’t forget.  Set a goal for yourself to meet at least two new neighbors before the end of next month.  Even if you have lived in your home for over a decade (or more!), there is probably someone you still don’t know.
  2. Celebrate national Good Neighbor Day on September 28.   Bake cookies or banana bread or invite people over for coffee.  My husband and I try to celebrate with our neighbors every year on the anniversary of the day we moved in to our home.  Nothing fancy, usually just a cookout.  It gives us a chance to tell our neighbors how much we appreciate them.
  3. If you see someone moving in, introduce yourself.  It is so nice to have a friendly face and a name to help you feel grounded in new territory.  Bring them a few takeout menus (you know you have a million).  And lend them your ladder when they need to borrow it.
  4. Need to get to know more and want a bigger bang for your buck?  A potluck is a great way.  Divide up everyone by last name and ask people to bring a dish to share.  Our park district will even provide road blocks, a climbing wall and kids train if you are throwing a block party.  My sister moved to a new neighborhood last year and hosted a neighborhood-wide Easter Egg hunt.  She also hosted a back-to-school party and will probably throw an end-of-school bash.  Too much?  Maybe just have a cocoa and cookies night and do an open house.  Like football or sports?  Host a tailgate (outside so there is little cleanup!).  If you are willing to host, so many more people are willing to jump in and participate or even help.  Someone just has to take the first step.  Let it be you.
  5. Finally, BE a good neighbor.  If you get someone else’s mail, take it as an opportunity to go meet that person.  Maybe bring their trash cans up to their house for them while you do yours.  Offer to help rake leaves or shovel the snow off driveways.  No one says you have to be best friends with your neighbors but everyone likes living next to a good neighbor.

If you decide to take any of these action steps, be sure to use #createmycommunity so we can celebrate with you!  Or, please share your ideas in the comments!