On neighborliness

This is kind of random, but over the years I’ve found myself wondering about the concept of neighborliness, and what it means to share a physical community with people.

As a young girl, 3 of my closest friends lived on my street. I could walk a few houses down to play with them, and often did. Our parents took turns babysitting. We invited each other to parties, whether at the neighborhood pool, the clubhouse, or in our own homes. It was a modest row of townhomes, but it felt like the Cleavers. Like the stuff we see on TV.

In middle school, my family moved to a neighborhood that looked more like suburbia, but none of the kids were quite my age. The boys down the street were cute, but too old to be interested in me. The girls nearby needed me as a babysitter, not a friend. My parents introduced themselves to everyone, but no one ever really became our family friends. We waved as we drove by, or said hello as we picked up the newspapers from our lawns, but we didn’t borrow cups of sugar or anything.

College dorms are their own special ecosystem, full of hormones and alcohol and gossip and stress. But they are also the most “neighborly” community I’ve ever lived in. (Especially the freshman dorms.) I could ask anyone for anything — a blowdryer, a snack, a tampon, a condom. I could knock on someone’s door at 2 in the morning if I had an emergency — and often even if I didn’t. I had privacy when I needed it, but I never felt isolated or alone. It was that place where everybody knew your name, and they were always glad you came.

Now I live in a condo complex, a small but diverse, new-ish development. There are lots of old people, a spattering of families, and then several “yuppie” couples like me and Andy. Because I walk Riley so much, we’re minor celebrities in the neighborhood, but honestly I wouldn’t call myself close to anyone here. Or at least not anymore.

The neighbors I thought I was close to — a young couple with a dog and a new baby — recently moved away. Without telling me. Not even a note on the door, or a casual mention that they were looking for a new place. One afternoon I passed by their patio — where we had chatted about football, jobs, TV shows, the dogs, the baby — and all their stuff was gone. A few days later, someone else’s stuff was moved in.

To say I’m sad would be melodramatic. But surprised, certainly. And a little disappointed. Part of me wonders, What’s the point? Why bother reaching out? Maybe modern technology means we don’t need neighborliness anymore. Our family and friends are just a drive, call, or click away.

But part of me clings to the ideal that “home” is about more than four walls and a roof. It’s a place you want to go back to at the end of each day. Obviously the people inside those walls should be ones you love — but shouldn’t the people right outside at least be ones you know? Possibly even like?

Don’t worry, I’m not scarred for life or jaded. (Yet.) In fact, for several weeks I’ll be helping a woman who just had hip surgery by taking her dog out twice a day. I don’t want to be her BFF or anything, but it’s nice to know that there’s someone in my neighborhood who feels comfortable asking for a favor. It’s nice that there’s someone in my neighborhood I feel comfortable doing a favor for. And I’m sure that if either one of us were to move away, we would tell the other.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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Another one bites the dust (leading to a declaration of refocus)


  1. Thank you so much for this post! Since I was little I’ve watched the other kids on my street grow up and move away, and slowly people have stopped interacting. These days it seems everyone wants to live in a private bubble, and pretend that they are not surrounded by other people. Our backyard used to be open, now it is virtually closed off by tall fences. So much for talking over the back fence. So I guess I feel your pain. Now, the simplest acts-taking in someone’s mail while they’re on vacation, for instance-sometimes mean the most. But is that really a good thing? Or should we be doing more?

  2. You know why I’ve lived on this block (three different houses) for 13 years? Because I know and am friends with just about all of my neighbors (obviously closer to some than others). Believe me, we have thought about moving somewhere else many, many times–somewhere cuter, with bigger houses, bigger yards. And then I can’t go because I know how special it is right here where we are.

    My online/virtual community is very important to me, but it is not the same as knowing, liking, accepting (and getting the same in return) from the people right outside your door.

  3. Jon

    Living in an apartment complex surrounded by a bunch of UCLA students for the past three years, it’s a little different than your situation. Of course, most of my neighborly interactions were of the nature of “Hey, don’t make so much noise, ya kids.”

  4. Kristan, I feel the same way you do. When I was a kid, we knew everyone on the street. We knew every kid’s bike, everyone’s dog by name, and lots of other details. Now, I don’t even recognize my neighbors if I see them at the store. It’s a different world these days.

  5. Julia

    Interesting post. I happen to know most of the people in my neighborhood. But I’ve lived there for 20 years and am, let’s just say, not shy.

    In a larger view, I think there is a change overall in how people interact. It is perhaps, in part, a function of time. We are working more hours than ever. We are shuttling ourselves and our children from event to meeting to meeting to event. I remember growing up, people would drop in and visit, for no reason. That doesn’t happen any more. And when you do call someone to see about getting together, the inevitable question posed is “what do you want to do?” We are, I think, losing the art of doing nothing. Or at least, doing nothing with each other.

  6. Aw that’s sad that your neighbors moved away and didn’t say anything :(

    I’ve never had neighbors I knew well, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. Even now I technically live in a dorm in the U District of Seattle (it’s a studio apartment with a shared kitchen, but most of my neighbors seem to be college students) and there is no sense of community here. I’m fine with it, but like I said I’ve never really known another way of life..

  7. Trisha

    I believe it is an evolution of our social system. I grew up playing with the neighbor kids until the street lights came on. We roamed many blocks and didn’t have cell phones to check in. We got sunburned and had scraped knees from climbing trees. Soon our kids will be low-jacked and have to report at their designated ‘play’ time with approved and screened assigned play-units.

  8. Mary

    I never really knew our neighbors growing up. And though I enjoyed my time living in dorms while I was doing it, every single one of those relationships was far more fleeting than I realized at the time.

    Honestly, in the end, relationships with people are hard. Even casual ones often fall victim to totally differing expectations. Nobody ever seems to know exactly what to do with a situation where one person is more invested in the relationship than the other, and I think that sometimes just leads people to avoid casual relationships based on proximity entirely. After all, it’s harder to gracefully back away from an acquaintance who lives next door. And a lot more awkward when your neighbor is dropping hints they don’t really want to have any sort of relationship than someone you can more easily avoid.

  9. Interesting. Like Aisha, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where I knew my neighbors well, despite living in a suburban cul-de-sac in a gated community for 10 years. (And not even when I was living in dorms in college.) It bothered me very little. I’d rather go out for socializing and have “home” be a space for personal time. I would prefer for my community not to be based on physical proximity but shared interests or values, and to meet somewhere accessible from but not tied to my personal space. That way I have somewhere to go when I need time to recharge.

  10. Glad this resonated with so many of you! And thanks for sharing your memories. Ah the good old days, right? ;)

    Completely agree, re: online community.

    I think those are very astute observations, and I agree with them entirely. At some point my friend Angie noted that we always had to go out for meals with folks in order to see them, which meant we often gorged ourselves unpleasantly during visits home. “Why can’t we just hang out at home doing nothing?” she asked. I still wonder that myself sometimes.

    (On the other hand, it’s kind of neat that food plays such an important social role. And really always has, anthropologically.)

    Ugh, I know. And I can’t figure out if it’s b/c the world is getting more dangerous, or parents are getting more paranoid.

    That’s true, re: relationships. But I guess I feel like some degree/quantity of casual relationships with neighbors is valuable, even if it’s sometimes “awkward” or more difficult to navigate them, compared to deeper, more comfortable relationships.

    It’s not that I want my most important community to be based on proximity, but I think proximity creates a community (by definition) and I’d rather have some good casual relationships within that space, rather than none at all. Like you, I deeply value my personal space for privacy and recharging. But I don’t think being neighborly negates having that.

  11. I meant to comment on this a few days ago but my brain melted. I often think that I should be able to walk next door for a cup of sugar (which would have saved me in one of my many, random cookie baking moments) not because I feel anyone is obligated to offer, but merely out of that sense of community. If someone came to ask me I would give them an egg or some milk – whatever they needed.

    Though I didn’t grow up in a traditional neighborhood; we didn’t have neighbors until a few years ago. Before then my family owned three houses in a row (grandparents and other relatives) and so I reckon I’m more used to that sort of sharing spirit. I hope that soon we as a social group will get back into that sort of mindset.

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