Nurturing a Neighborhood's Community Spirit

LIVE in a most unusual neighborhood. Caught between two major thoroughfares in northern Virginia, our community boasts some 400 families. It was developed to keep a small-town feeling in this big-town world. Some of the homes are over a half century old, with interiors to match: outdated kitchens, closet-sized bathrooms, narrow stairs, and small casement windows. Few of the original inhabitants are still alive, but their community spirit remains with the new residents attracted to its neighborly reputation.

I didn't appreciate this community spirit until I had children. My husband and I bought our house 13 years ago. We were both caught up in our careers and used it as a rest stop between long hours on business travel. A year after we moved in, a young couple with an infant bought the house next to ours. I'm embarrassed that I didn't meet them for almost two years; yet our homes are so close, I could easily throw a baseball through their living-room window.

After my first son arrived and I took an extended maternity leave, I decided to stay home full- time. I was lost, isolated from the camaraderie of the office, and not well-acquainted with my neighbors. But then two things happened: Older residents continued to be replaced by young families, and more mothers were staying home full-time.

Now we have a tribal environment, much like mothers in ``primitive'' cultures all over the world. Walk down our street any warm afternoon around 4 p.m., and you're likely to find the sidewalks stuffed with bicycles, strollers, wagons, kids, and moms.

We all stream out at the end of the day to burn off steam and to pool our watchful eyes as we compare notes on our respective days. We watch one other's children when one of the mothers needs to step inside to check on the roaster, change the laundry, or put the baby down for a nap.

Other times we're apt to call one another to borrow a child to amuse our own. And it's not uncommon to call a neighbor for an egg, celery, or to borrow a microwave when the power is out on one side of the street.

Perhaps most touching is the way this spirit crosses all ages. The infant, now grown, who moved in next door shortly after us started baby-sitting my children a few years back. And the widowed neighbor behind me regularly watches my children for no charge ``in a pinch.'' Our neighbor also hawk-eyes our home for burglars, and feeds my son's fish if we're out of town. And we repay the debt. My husband helps her with heavy chores, and I've brought her groceries when the roads had more ice than she wished to navigate.

Over the past winter, when bad weather closed the schools more than usual, we shifted into high gear. Children, bundled in boots and snow suits, trudged from house to house - giving one mom some quiet and the other some amusement for her closeted youngsters.

I arranged a swap with a working mom for the days that school openings were delayed for poor weather. I kept her kids in the early morning, then delivered them to the bus. A few weeks later, when my husband was on a business trip, she took over his job of taking my eldest son to the bus in the morning - freeing me from carting my three children to and fro.

This is not unique to our street; the mood radiates outward and inward to catch the willing. Citizens fill the community house for the association meeting once a month and organize activities - both onetime and traditional fetes - for all to enjoy.

The annual Fourth of July parade features hundreds of kids on bikes and long lines of parents queuing up for hot dogs and watermelon in the local park. Each spring, a sell-out spaghetti dinner - with two seatings - is thrown as a fund-raiser for the association.

And when it comes to community affairs, I would hate to take on my neighbors. Zoning proposals for high-rise buildings or other traffic-heavy establishments have been regularly struck down under their influence. Recently, the county school board proposed school boundary changes that would divide the neighborhood. They may have disagreed on the specifics of various proposals, but they all agreed that no one would split up the tribe.

This spirit touches most closely in times of personal joy or need. Twenty mothers threw a shower for me when I was pregnant with my second. And, after the birth of my third, the gifts were just as plentiful. One neighbor arrived with a tray laden with raspberry-baked chicken, rice pilaf, tossed salad, warm bread, and fruit.

But this communal spirit has its price - paid by the disproportionate number of families sacrificing to have one parent at home full-time with their children; especially remarkable in career-obsessed Washington. All these mothers have college degrees and over half have advanced degrees and dazzling work credentials.

They could easily carry big titles and pull in big bucks. But they have chosen to put some ease and control back into their lives, to slow down and take simple pleasure from daily routines.

These families also give up the material accouterments they could easily attain with two incomes - a master bedroom suite, overseas travel, private school, and fancy summer camps. They make do with the public schools, free reading programs at the library, country camps, and beach vacations. Yet I hear few complaints. We realize that both successful careers and raising kids are jobs with long hours and hard work.

My neighborhood seems to be an exception to the norm. Many mothers at home with small children are isolated in subdivisions filled with both-employed parents or in transient communities where stability and a sense of place never get established. These people reach out to churches, schools, and other community centers to fill the void.

But to me, nothing can compare with the over-the-fence easiness of tribal life. I hope we aren't a dying breed.

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