The good neighbor policy
Carlos Ramos grew up in a small ranch town in southern Mexico, where front doors were always open, children played on the street from dawn until dusk, and families cooked for one another. He has always hoped to duplicate this neighborly experience for his own children.
But his wife, Sara Jane Whitman, is skeptical. She hardly knows the people with whom they share a three-family home. It's better that way, says the resident of Port Chester, N.Y., who calls herself "skittish by nature." Since the events of Sept. 11 and summer's string of kidnappings, she has become less trusting. She worries when Carlos strikes up conversations with strangers, and she is concerned about what they will teach their 18-month-old daughter, Isabella.
A recent Monitor/TIPP poll shows that most Americans' attitudes about neighborliness fall somewhere between those of Carlos and Sara Jane.
People may not want an open-door policy, but they do believe in reaching out. Of those polled, 91 percent feel that it is either very important or somewhat important to get to know their neighbors; 89 percent know the names of at least some if not all of their immediate neighbors; and 45 percent have shared a meal with some of these neighbors. (See graphic.)
Certainly the events of Sept. 11, 2001, stirred up a desire for deeper connections, if only to develop a support network to depend upon in times of crisis or to decipher neighbors' trustworthiness. Stories of increased community spirit are legion since then although block parties and kaffeeklatsches are probably fewer these days than in the weeks following the attacks.
But some neighbors were already devising ways to develop deeper bonds and counteract the impersonal nature of America's fast-paced society, where people shuttle from the seclusion of office cubicles to that of their homes, with computers and automatic-garage-door openers thwarting human interaction.
Examples of neighborliness pre- and post-9/11 can be found all across America. Today, the Monitor looks at three groups of neighbors and the ways they connect with one another.
Apartment dwellers two blocks from ground zero in New York who rarely spoke are now exercising their dogs together. Neighbors in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, heeded the call of a city council member and went out to mingle on their porches and driveways for two nights in June.
And a group of neighboring farmers and home-based entrepreneurs on an isolated street in the Cascade Mountains, three hours from the closest cities Seattle and Spokane came up with an unusual way to learn more about the people who live nearby.
Before planes hit the World Trade Center towers near their 11-story apartment building in the TriBeCa section of New York, Jennifer Steckler and Victoria Grantham frequently rode the same elevator in silence. Now they talk often sometimes several times a day when both visit the neighborhood "dog run."
The dog run is on a squared-off section of asphalt just a half block away. It used to be virtually empty. But since the terrorist attacks last year, it has become a popular gathering place for residents and their pets.
There, about 75 dog ownerswho visit each day might swap puppy advice, talk politics, or commiserate about the logistics of life near a world-famous disaster site.
It's unfortunate, these apartment dwellers say, that it took tragedy to get them talking. But they insist they would never want to return to their formerly isolated lives. Ms. Steckler had lived in the building for six years and knew only one neighbor. Ms. Grantham had moved into the building in March and knew no one.
Immediately following 9/11 and for four months afterward, everyone in the building had to move elsewhere while cleaning crews scoured every square foot. During that time, which they call "survival mode," the building owner set up an online bulletin board and a telephone hot line for the 350 tenants. They traded tips and buzzed about their displaced lives.
When it came time to return home, residents had formed what Grantham calls "a real sense of being together."
Coincidentally, many of these neighbors then got pets. "There was a strong instinct toward nurturing," says Grantham, who adopted a mutt from a local shelter.
"People needed to connect to something," adds Steckler, "and they didn't want to put off things they had been wanting to do for a long time."
Grantham is a regular at the dog run, usually before heading to the office. Steckler, a marketing consultant who works from home and last winter got a miniature schnauzer, goes there several times a day.
"I love it. I didn't have friends in this neighborhood before 9/11, but thanks to the dog run, I've made strong friendships," she says. "People have offered me wedding advice, circulated my résumé, and they often swap dog- and baby-sitting services ... It's been the conduit to making this feel like a real community."
Steckler no longer considers her neighbors to be only those who live next door. Instead, her definition of neighbor has expanded to include even local business owners, many of whom worked around the clock to help area residents last autumn and have struggled to keep their businesses going ever since. "I have formed strong allegiances to them," she says.
Although both women had considered moving after 9/11, they now plan to stay put. "All of us have all been through so much together. We feel a sense of solidarity," says Grantham.
Adds Steckler: "I have an even stronger connection to this area now. I've become more territorial. And I don't even mind helping disoriented tourists find their way."
This past June in Worthington, Ohio, neighbors participated in a clever variation on the traditional block party. Initiated by a city council member to introduce residents to one another, "Hi Neighbor" evenings on June 21 and 22 involved a specified time (6 to 7:30) when people gathered on front porches, lawns, or driveways on their streets.
On the first night, those with odd-numbered addresses hosted, and the second night, the honor fell to those with even-numbered addresses.
Cold drinks and snacks were served, common interests were discovered, and some neighbors shook hands for the first time.
Sparked by both 9/11 and a desire for connectedness in an increasingly impersonal society, Hi Neighbor evenings were a hit with those who took part.
"I hadn't met the new couple down the street," says Cindy Lewis, "and I also got reacquainted with people I'd met at a block party a while back."
Sometimes a little organized socialization is just what's needed to break the ice. "We drive right into our garages without saying hello, we gather on backyard patios, and we have air-conditioned homes, so we don't linger on front porches," says Virginia Duym, who lives across the street from Ms. Lewis.
Although turnout was lower than expected, Worthington will host an encore next year and step up publicity to increase interest among more of the city's 14,000 residents.
Most people wouldn't curl up on the couch with their local phone book. But now that theirs includes personal and historical information, along with the usual names and numbers, folks in Libby Creek, Wash., find that reading through its pages has become a popular pastime.
Forty-four families in rural Methow Valley, who live less than a quarter-mile away from one another, got telephones only two years ago. Before then, every household had a message board of some kind. Neighbors would simply pop in whenever they wanted to chat and leave a message on the board if no one was home. Now, thanks to Libby Creek residents Joyce Campbell, who fought for phones, and Wendy Snook, who published the directory, they have finally entered the modern age.
The phone lines buzz constantly, online instant messaging is a novelty, and neighbors can easily find out who sells flowers, raises chickens, or grows garlic, as well as who lives in the oldest house on the street or who has made recent renovations.
The impetus for a detailed telephone directory had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it was published a year earlier, and has become an increasingly useful tool.
These rural neighbors, most of whom own farms or other home-based businesses, have grown accustomed to mutual dependency calling on one another to help harvest vegetables before frost, fix tractors, or chase stray cows.
Telephones, especially when the need is urgent, have been a boon to their neighborly network.
Life in the Cascades, though beautiful, can be rugged, and residents often need one another to help ease the strains of daily life or simply to be there in times of crisis. Last year, for example, when a forest fire ripped through the area and residents remained in their homes, the phone lines became a sort of lifeline for neighbors checking up on one another.
Ms. Campbell likes to think there are pockets of people all across America living this way, and that the denizens of Libby Creek are really not that special. But she talks about "the other world out there," and much as she likes the convenience of telephones, she speaks somewhat longingly about the unplugged days.
"Maybe there are rules out there in the other world about calling before you go see someone," she says, "but there never used to be here.
"Now that we have phones, I often wonder if I should call first. If everyone feels that way, and people are out in the garden away from the phone, they might miss a visit." For Campbell, who considers her neighbors as family, a day without a visit from one of them would be a sad day indeed.
Needless to say, the folks of Libby Creek cannot imagine living in an automatic-garage-door-opener community, where sometimes not even a "hello" is exchanged between neighbors. Neighborliness is a necessity here.
"We share the commonality of living in this unique area," says Campbell. "We have a history of being helpful to one another. You can always figure things out together in a group better than as individuals. We know that, and we constantly share resources."
A folksy telephone directory, published by Wendy Snook in a remote, agricultural community of eastern Washington State, lists products and services its 44 families offer everything from floral wreaths and homegrown garlic to emergency snow plowing and website design. It also tells the history of residents' homes.
Its publication has promoted an even greater sense of neighborliness among an already tight-knit group. Nestled in the Cascade Mountains, three hours from the nearest major cities of Spokane and Seattle, Libby Creek got telephones only two years ago. At a harvest party, Ms. Snook gave each neighbor a directory.
Snook lives with her husband, Bill, in a nearly 100-year-old log cabin. They raise chickens, cows, and trout. She was driven by a desire to learn more about her community and its rich history, dating back to 1886. She spent an entire winter researching land records and deeds and interviewing residents, especially old-timers who could recount stories of their youth.
The following was excerpted from background on the beginnings of Snook's home:
Martin Backhoop homesteaded and built his one-room cabin and log barn in 1906. He got the logs from the flat west of the cabin, hauled by horses. He was deeded 165 acres and irrigated from both Libby and Smith Creeks. He was a German immigrant and Alaskan gold miner from the Klondike who worked down the road in the Fred Culver orchards and used to walk down the road every day to work and back.... He was very honest and polite, and folks liked him a lot.
The benefits of neighborliness go way beyond what one might expect, says Thomas Sander of Harvard University's Kennedy School. He should know. As executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America Project, he looks closely at the effects of making connections. Mr. Sander writes often on the topic, including an opinion piece for this newspaper, which appeared on Feb. 19. In a recent interview, he shared these insights:
"Regardless of the urge to cocoon or hunker down, all the literature shows the importance of personal interconnections for happiness, a well-working democracy, safer streets, and better education. It's more important now than ever to know work colleagues and neighbors. It doesn't matter if people try to connect for reasons of self-interest or out of the goodness of their hearts. What's important is whether social relationships develop, not only for deep, abiding friendships. Different kinds of relationships are useful for different things.
"It's easier to build community in small towns than in urban areas there's higher trust, and it's easier to get things done. In cities, people are more likely to decide they won't get involved."