Getting To Know Your Neighbors: Worth The Effort
NEAL CONAN, host:
Peter Lovenheim has lived on the same quiet street in an unassuming suburb of Rochester, New York, for much of his life, but after startling news of a murder-suicide a few houses away, he was struck by a fact of modern life - no one on his street really knew each other. And so began Peter Lovenheim's quest. He decided to get to know the folks on his block one sleepover at a time.
This admittedly eccentric social experiment led to a better sense of community to a book called "In the Neighborhood" and to a question: Why don't we make an effort to know our neighbors?
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Peter Lovenheim recently wrote an opinion piece in the L.A. Times called "Social Experiment: Know Thy Neighbor" and joins us today from a studio at Cornell University in New York.
Nice to have you on the program with us.
Professor PETER LOVENHEIM (English, Rochester Institute of Technology; Author, "In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time"): Hi, Neal. Nice to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: So after you realized that this family that had lived in your neighborhood for seven years; nobody really knew them, you must have asked yourself, why not?
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Well, I did ask that question. I wondered to myself, you know, do I live in a neighborhood or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate from my own?
CONAN: And are you too busy? Are you too insular? Why didn't anybody make the effort? Why didn't you make the effort before?
Prof. LOVENHEIM: You know, I'm not a sociologist, but I started looking into this question by seeing what the people who studied these things have found out about that, and they give a number of reasons.
You know, two career couples mean there are just fewer people home during the day. We spend more time in front of the television, on the Internet. I certainly do. And the built environment has changed over the years. Houses and lot sizes today are about twice the size on average than they were a generation ago, so we're just further apart from each other.
And on top of that, front porches have largely disappeared. I can remember when if you put a fence up in your backyard, it was considered a slightly hostile act, but today, a lot of new housing construction comes with fences already built.
And then on top of that, I think there's just this pervasive fear of strangers today.
I teach at the college level. I have 18- and 19-year-old students who I'm quite sure if they see people on campus who they don't know, particularly an adult, they're much likely to think of that person as a potential threat than a potential friend.
CONAN: You also tell a story about a woman you saw walking through the neighborhood almost every day, and you realized you didn't know who she was or what her name was even.
Rrof. LOVENHEIM: No. This is a - this was a woman named Grace, I later learned, who had been walking in my neighborhood almost every day for 40 years, almost every day for 40 years.
And when I finally approached her and asked her if she'd talk to me about this book, subject of how Americans live as neighbors, she did invite me to her place to have an interview.
And what I learned was that, among other things, when she was a young woman, she had studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York. She was an accomplished harpist and pianist. You know, and I thought, you know, what I waste. She's now in her mid-80s, but if we had - as a neighborhood, if we had known her when she was younger, maybe she could have enriched the neighborhood by giving music lessons to the kids or just, you know, just the pleasure of talking to her about her musical achievements.
CONAN: And then, how did you arrive at the idea of asking your neighbors if you could sleep over?
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Yeah. Well...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. LOVENHEIM: ...I didn't like the idea anymore of living among people I simply didn't know, and I kind of scratched my head for several months over, you know, how could I reach out and get to know people on my street, beyond the superficial level. I mean, really get to know them in a meaningful way, to see what the full potential for a relationship might be?
And at some point, I just remembered the experience as a kid of sleeping over at friends' houses. And, for me, what I remember liking the most was not actually the sleeping over, it was waking up the next morning and coming down to breakfast with my friend's family. Of course, this was a time when people actually ate meals together.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. LOVENHEIM: But, you know, we'd sit around the breakfast table, and there would be people there who had really been strangers to me, my friend's older sister or my friend's dad.
And by listening, I get a sense of what their day was going to be about and what their relationships were one to another. And then, when the next time I went over to my friend's house, it didn't feel like such a strange place. I had a sense of what life was like inside their home.
And that, you know, that was the genesis of this methodology. You know, would my neighbors my let me stay over and write about their lives from inside their own homes? And by doing that, you know, could we kind of create a real sense of community on our street?
CONAN: Did it work?
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Well, I'm glad to say that to some extend it did. I mean, not everybody said yes, but about half of the people I approached were willing to talk with me about the subject and their experiences on the street and, eventually, to let me sleep over.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Peter Lovenheim. He's the author of the book "In the Neighborhood," and wrote a piece in the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times called "Social Experiment: Know Thy Neighbor." And we're asking why is it we don't these days? 800-989-8255, email: email@example.com.
And let's start with John, John with us from Tallahassee.
JOHN (Caller): Yeah. I just want to make a comment. Back in the '80s, I had a roommate that told me that the worst people you ever want to know is your next-door neighbors. And the reason for that is that if you have a falling out, you have to live there and you're now living with -you're now living next door to somebody you can't get away from.
CONAN: And so you best be careful or at least polite.
JOHN: Yeah. Exactly.
CONAN: And has that been your experience, John?
JOHN: I don't know. I don't know any of my neighbors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: Just for that reason.
CONAN: For this - exactly that reason because...
CONAN: I'm sure your roommate told you a lot of things in the '80s. Do you still practice most of those?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Okay, John. Thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: But he expresses a good point. You do - certain degree of civility is always important with neighbors.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Right. Well, you know, we don't have to be best friends with our neighbors. We can make friends at work, at church and other places in our lives. But I think there are compelling reasons to know our neighbors. One of them is, certainly, that we're all mortal. We're all subject to medical or crime emergencies. And in those cases, you know, a friend even 10 minutes away can be a friend too far. Sometimes only the person next door or across the street can provide aid quickly enough when you need it.
CONAN: And you point out in your piece that even something so simple as when you're baking a cake in the evening and realize you need some vanilla, a neighbor next door that you can borrow some from, well, it saves a little bit of time and effort and gasoline.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Well, exactly. I mean, all our resources are finite. And if you're running to the store for a six-ounce bottle of vanilla, as one of my neighbors told me she had done, I think that's kind of wasting gas and energy and our own valuable time. It's much easier and environmentally friendly to borrow something from the neighbors; vanilla or sugar or lawn equipment or, you know, any other number of things.
CONAN: Let's go next to DJ(ph), Deejay with us from Rochester, New York.
DJ (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
DEEJAY: I wonder if do you think the extent to which neighbors don't know each other in a suburban environment is a measure of affluence. I recently moved to the suburbs from a southern tier of New York, a real very rural place. And when I was in a very rural place, we needed each other economically to pull each other out of our driveway or when someone's tractor broke down and that sort of thing. But now that I live in the suburbs, I'm very struck by how much people don't talk to each other and don't know each other. We just throw ourselves a welcome to neighborhood party after six months of not meeting our neighbors once we moved up here to Rochester. So I wondered if economics entered into whether you're thinking around sense of community and towards - and we need each other economically or not.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: The studies that I've looked at don't seem to show a significant difference between urban, suburban and rural communities in terms of neighborhood contacts.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Yeah. But what I'm finding, though, is there is another whole culture, this pervasive, what I think is a pervasive myth, though, that, you know, we're all supposed to strive to be autonomous...
Prof. LOVENHEIM: ...to live our lives without relying on anybody.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: And I think that, in some deep way, a lot of us feel that that just goes against human biology and that we've evolved to be social creatures. In fact, not only do we need each other, I think we're often happiest when we are at least somewhat dependent on each other...
Prof. LOVENHEIM: ...and have each other's back, for example.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: And I don't think that changes whether you live in a suburb or in a high-rise apartment in the city or a rural area.
CONAN: How did that party turn out, by the way, DJ?
DJ: Oh, it was wonderful, actually. We hoped to get 20 or 30 people and we end up with nearly 100. It was tremendous. And I've found out that I have wonderful neighbors and - but, you know, it took some initiative. I heard a quote once that someone said, only a cultural wash in oil could afford to live in such strangers amongst each other. When you made earlier reference to driving to a store for a bottle of vanilla, that, you know, for perhaps peak oil will require (technical difficulty) at some point...
CONAN: All right. Well, DJ, thanks very much for the call.
DJ: Okay. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email - actually a tweet we have from EJ Fox: My elderly neighbor comes over and knocks on my door once a week or so to have me roll him a cigarette because his wife always throws out his packs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Well, there's another good use of a neighbor.
CONAN: Let's see if Steve is on the line, Steve calling from Baltimore.
STEVE (Caller): Oh, hi, there. Two things: I recall reading an article which lamented the passing of the American front porch and its impact on community. And it went on to explain how people used to walk around their neighborhood, converse with their neighbors sitting on the porch.
And that's always been on my mind and, indeed, that has been experience as the porches had disappeared and perhaps with central air, people just aren't as engaged. The other thing that struck me was - I had lived in Africa for two years. I was quite struck by the sense of community outside the cities.
And when a friend of mine from Africa visited, they were astonished that I didn't know any of my neighbors. Well, in fact, I knew one, but I didn't know any of the others, and they were quite close. I'm curious what you thought about that.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Yeah. I think to some extent this is - I mean, I have heard from people around the world in developed countries that experience this isolation in their neighborhoods, but I do think we have an awful lot of it in this country. One of the most telling examples I could give though is I got a letter recently from a fellow from Florida. And he told me that - he was telling me about his experience during one of the hurricanes there. And he said that when the power went out, he came out into his street.
And first, he was surprised to see how many of his neighbors knew him by sight even though he had never met them. He liked that. Then, they all had to cook over a kerosene stove in the middle of the street for, I don't know, a couple of days or something, and he talked about how nice that was to get to know everyone.
Finally, the power comes back on, the air conditioning is working, everyone goes back into their homes. And he concludes his letter by saying, you know, I almost find myself wishing for the next hurricane so we can all catch up.
STEVE: Yeah, it strikes me that it's as if the spirit is willing, but the opportunity is not there, except in a time of crisis.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Right. Exactly.
STEVE: Well, thank you very much.
CONAN: Steve, thanks for the call.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Steve, welcome.
CONAN: We're talking with Peter Lovenheim. He is the author of the book "In the Neighborhood." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is Diane, Diane with us from Rincon - is it Rincon or Rincon?
DIANE (Caller): It's Rincon.
CONAN: Rincon, go ahead.
DIANE: Okay. I just wanted to say that I actually met my neighbors through my backyard garden. I had a whole bunch of vegetables and I could not drive to my mom's house because of gas prices - they were too high to drive. So I said, well, I need to give them to someone. So I actually went over to my neighbors. I did not know them, but I knocked on their door, rather timidly, and asked them, would you like some of the vegetables that I grew?
And out of that, my neighbors are now like my best friends, which I find really strange because, yes, we're in the South and people are very friendly, but they're friendly in a passerby way, not so much as want to come and sit or talk on your porch. So, I find that funny. And now, like, they babysit my kids and everything.
CONAN: I bet it was zucchini.
CONAN: I bet it was zucchini.
DIANE: No. Actually, it was cucumbers and tomatoes.
CONAN: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Diane, I'm glad it worked out.
DIANE: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to -this is Jennifer. And Jennifer is with us from Fort Riley in Kansas.
JENNIFER (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFER: We - my husband is in the military, and we live on Fort Riley military base. And when we first moved here, we got to live in an apartment that's four apartments and one building. There's five of us in a row. And when we first moved in, I was so excited because we saw our neighbors grilling and barbecuing and all the kids playing together. And it's been the best experience of my life with neighbors.
They've - we've all become best friends and watch each others' kids and help each other out when our husbands have been deployed. And we're getting ready to move and I told my husband the one requisite was to find out what our neighbors are like where we're moving at.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Good luck with that.
JENNIFER: Well, thank you.
CONAN: And we hope that everything works out for you in your next post.
JENNIFER: Oh, I'm sure it will. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Jennifer, thanks very much.
She raises a good point, though, Peter Lovenheim. Kids - if you've got kids in your family, somehow they always find the kids two houses down the street or across the block.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Right. I mean, kids are a natural way of getting to meet neighbors. There are some other good things that people can do if they want to try to improve the quality of their neighborhoods. The previous caller mentioned a garden in the backyard. Something very simple is just to take some backyard activity and move it to the front yard. You know, if you're growing flowers or even vegetables, you can do something like that in the front yard. And it puts you out there so that when people walk by, you know, at least that's an opportunity to say hello and get acquainted.
Some other things successful neighborhoods do include having a map or directory so everybody knows, you know, who each other is and how to make contact. There are also some interesting Internet, social networking sites devised specifically for whole neighborhoods to use to get together. One is called meet the neighbors. The other is i-neighbors.com.
CONAN: And do you still live on that same street in Rochester?
Prof. LOVENHEIM: I do.
CONAN: And do you now know all the neighbors.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: I can't say not all the neighbors. I know that neighbors certainly that I wrote about, we've become friends. And our neighborhood has started doing some things, I think, progressively. Instead of simply having an annual neighborhood picnic, the neighborhood association now has a monthly women's night out, which is nice; sometimes for men as well. And this previous, this past Fourth of July, they organized a children's bike parade, where all the kids rode their bikes around a fire truck provided by the town.
CONAN: Peter Lovenheim, thanks very much. Sounds like it might be a nice place to be on the Fourth of July.
Prof. LOVENHEIM: Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Lovenheim wrote the book "In the Neighborhood." He also teaches writing in the Department of English at Rochester Institute of Technology. Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin is back with the details on the expanding field of Republican contenders for president of the United States, and of course, a trivia question. You don't want to miss that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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