Back in April I heard this wonderful NPR interview with Peter Lovenheim about getting to know your neighbors. I was driving home, and sat in the car listening until it was done.
Lovenheim talks about the importance of making the effort to know your neighbors, and then speaks with callers about this idea. Some folks believe that knowing your neighbors is a liability. Others discover that their neighbors become close friends.
Listening to the story, I was itching to call in myself and say, “Let me tell you about MY neighborhood!” And then I decided I’d write a blog post about it. Life being what it is, I am now just getting around to it.
I live in a dense neighborhood, over 50 houses to a block. These are Baltimore rowhouses, small and narrow, with a front stoop and a backyard. Being so close together, it is rather difficult not to get to know your neighbors.
There are so many houses, we tend to break down into quadrants. We’re the south-west side of the street, where trees shade the front steps, and the sun beats down on the back porches and decks. We tend to spend more time in the backyard than the front, talking from porch to porch, and across the alley to our neighbors on the next street over.
When we first moved in, we made an effort to introduce ourselves to our immediate neighbors. Over the years, we continue to meet new people, either folks who have recently moved in, or people who are just a little farther down the street. We’re a motley bunch, ranging in age from the early 20’s to the late 80’s, some single, some with kids, some retired. Some of us fixed up our houses with new appliances and hardwood floors, while others of us maintain the wall-to-wall carpeting installed decades ago.
But what we share are the sidewalks and streets, and we find a way to keep the peace in close quarters. The alley neighbors, as we call our group that chat in the backyards, all say hello to each other, and chat about our days. Thanks to John, the one-man welcome wagon, everyone gets a loud “Hello!” when they come home from work. Mr. Frank, our next door neighbor, loves to reminisce about his days working for the railroad, and his youth in Baltimore. He and Miss May maintain the bird feeders and fountain that keep our other neighbors, the sparrows, finches, and doves, happy and fed. Jen and Mike grill in their backyard, and chase their cats back in the house in a nearly-nightly ritual.
My neighbor Heather is truly a great friend. We discovered a shared love of books, and go on excursions to the books store or to run errands often. I take care of her cat when she is away, and she was one of our late, great, Sasquatch the cat’s favorite people. We drop in whenever we can to catch up, and sometimes just shout our updates across the alley to each other.
While the day-to-day of being a neighbor matters, it’s the times that people chip in when things get rough that really make an impression. Two winters ago, when Baltimore was hit with not one, but two snowstorms in a week, the mayor declared that there was no more funding for snow removal, and that people should just sit tight. Our tiny street was rarely on the plowing list anyway, and as the week went on, and the snow wasn’t melting, the neighbors got together. Using garden shovels and those orange snow shovels from the grocery store, we dug our way down the street, piling the snow in walls along the sidewalk. Eventually, the street was clear. At the same time, we met many folks “down the street” whom we didn’t know, expanding our sense of the community.
This winter I was home recovering from being sick, when our carbon monoxide alarm went off. After a visit from Baltimore’s finest, I found myself with a burned-out furnace, and no idea what to do about it. My neighbors and friends, Leon, Vanessa, and Izze, welcome me to their spare room, while other friends, Sue and Hal, recommended a repair company. We ended up living across the street for a week, while Baltimore faced record low temperatures. Thanks to all our friends, we were safe and warm, and able to think through our plans for replacing the furnace.
We’ve lived here for nine years, and there are hundreds more stories: John and Brian’s annual Christmas party, complete with Santa; stoop-sitting with Miss May to hand out Halloween candy; joining the craft group that became some of my dearest friends; creating and destroying, and creating our garden again, with commentary and encouragement from our alley friends.
I think of that guy who called into the radio show and said that he didn’t want to know his neighbors, in case they didn’t get along. I feel sorry for him, because he is really missing out on something special. We don’t just live in our house, we LIVE in our neighborhood. Those words spoken on the stoop and across the alley, those sticks of butter and eggs passed hand to hand, are what it means to be part of a community.
This may sound a bit impassioned, and it is. I am feeling this love of my neighborhood so strongly today, as I am leaving it soon. David and I are moving to Burlington, Vermont, in a week. This has been a goal of ours for some time, and once we get there I will look forward to writing more about why we moved and what we are looking forward to. But for now, I want to honor the neighborhood where we met, bought our home, married, and grew up.
Earlier today I was sitting on my back deck, listening to the birds. Miss May came out to check on her plants, and we chatted about the birds that woke us both up this morning. She went back in to start breakfast, and I came inside to write this, my thanks to all my wonderful neighbors, my community, and my home. I will miss you.