My book In the Neighborhood, published 10 years ago this spring, asked how Americans live as neighbors — and what we lose when the people next door are strangers. These questions are just as timely today. Not only is the country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also facing a political crisis. And on top of these global and national issues, there are often painful personal matters, such as the sort of health crisis that my own family recently experienced. In each instance, neighborhoods have a critical role to play in easing adversity and averting disaster.
The inspiration to write my book came from the murder-suicide of a couple — both physicians — who lived on my suburban street in Rochester, New York. One evening the husband came home and shot and killed his wife, and then himself; their children, a boy, 11, and a girl, 12, ran screaming into the night.
What struck me — besides the tragedy — was how little it seemed to affect the neighbors. A family who had lived on our street for seven years had vanished, and yet the impact on the neighborhood seemed slight. No one, I learned, had known the family well. Few of my neighbors, I later learned, knew each other more than casually; many didn’t know even the names of those a door or two away.
Interestingly, many of the happy connections between neighbors occurred in response to natural disasters.
Do I live in a neighborhood, I asked myself, or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate? Why, I wondered, in this age of instant and universal communication — when we can create community anywhere — do we often not know the people who live next door?
To see if I could connect with my neighbors beyond a superficial level, I asked them if I could sleep over at their houses and write about their lives on our street from inside their own homes. Somewhat to my surprise, about half the neighbors I approached said yes.
Getting to know my neighbors in this way enlivened the experience of living there. It helped me forge connections that enriched my life and made it easier for the people on my street to look out for each other.
After I told my story in the book, I heard from people all over the world about how much they missed close neighborhood ties. They also told of more recent times when they’d managed to connect with their neighbors, and how gratifying those experiences had been.
Interestingly, many of the happy connections between neighbors occurred in response to natural disasters. On the West Coast, readers recounted earthquakes and fires; in the South, hurricanes and floods; in the North, massive snowstorms. “When the power went out,” a Florida man wrote me of his neighborhood during Hurricane Andrew, “we began to cook our meals in the street. We enjoyed getting to know each other and learning each other’s stories. After a few days the power came back and we all went back inside. It’s funny, but I find myself looking forward to the next hurricane so we can catch up.”
Today, we’re all living through an unfamiliar kind of natural disaster — the coronavirus pandemic — and I see that neighbors are connecting once again. We’ve read and heard a lot of these stories, so I’ll share just one from my own family.
Just after New Year’s 2020, my 4-year-old granddaughter, my daughter’s child, was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer. Suddenly, her life and the lives of her parents and 2-year-old sister were upended. What had been the happy, busy life of a growing family was now beset by fear, anger, uncertainty, trips at all hours to the hospital, increased medical bills, and two parents trying to work remotely from home.
We’re 11 times more likely to report high levels of confidence in our neighbors than in the federal government, and 5 times more than in our city councils.
My daughter’s family lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the response to their 4-year-old’s health crisis was … nothing. This was not because the neighbors were unkind; it was mostly because my daughter and her husband, after living in their home for nearly four years, knew few, if any, of their neighbors well.
But the COVID-19 pandemic came just three months after my granddaughter’s diagnosis. Suddenly everyone in the neighborhood was living with fear and uncertainty, working remotely from home, and struggling with unknowns including reduced income. On a neighborhood listserv, someone offered to buy groceries and other supplies for anyone especially vulnerable to the virus.
My daughter responded:
Some of you have offered so generously to pick up groceries for those of us who are immunosuppressed. I’m pregnant and one of my children has cancer. If anyone happens to be at a store this week selling toilet paper, tissues, or paper towels, please pick up some extra for us! Happy to pay, of course.
The response was swift and strong:
My daughter will deliver items shortly (I’ll wear gloves when I put the items in the bag, so nothing will have been touched by anyone in the house).
We dropped off some tissue boxes a few mins ago.
Allison & Michael
I have a couple smaller boxes of tissues I’d be happy to drop off to you. Oh and I can give you a container of Clorox wipes too.
I just dropped off paper towels and tissues at your front door.
And that was only the beginning. For weeks, my daughter has been finding bags of groceries and paper goods on her doorstep; in most cases, the neighbors decline payment. “Don’t be silly,” one wrote. “There will surely come a time when I need a favor from a neighbor.”
Today, my granddaughter’s treatments continue and her prognosis is good. Her family’s life is still upended, but now at least they are aided and comforted to know they live among people who know and care about them. Once again, it took a terrible event to bring neighbors together.
Can we find ways to connect with each other without a disaster?
As Americans, we have an independent streak; our impulse for freedom and self-reliance often comes more naturally than the desire for community. Social trends also work against connections. Two-career couples mean fewer people are at home or have the leisure time to interact with neighbors. Larger suburban homes — and the lots they sit on — increase physical distance. Ever-increasing hours of screen time leave us less time to socialize. And the persistent fear we call “stranger danger” steers us away from meeting others — even those who live nearby.
I’m afraid it would be naive to think that — in the absence of a new disaster — we will all just reach out to our neighbors because it’s a nice thing to do.
So, let me offer a different incentive.
Pandemic aside, this country is experiencing a crisis: Politically, we have torn ourselves in half. Whichever side you’re on, half the country thinks you’re not only wrong, but insane.
It’s a crisis that poses a threat greater than any hurricane, fire, earthquake, or pandemic. Left unchecked, I fear it can rip us in two and in the process — regardless of which side prevails — destroy the very protections we rely on for our freedom.
What is the answer? History suggests if we want to begin to repair the social fabric, a good place to start is our own neighborhoods.
Like the meetinghouses and common greens of earlier times, neighborhoods long have been the building blocks of a healthy civil society. Today, they are a place that allows us to get to know, regularly and intimately, people who may think differently than we do. With effort, we can come to know our neighbors beyond a superficial level, to know their challenges and the fullness of their lives. Once we do that, it becomes hard to mark them only with political labels.
For example, there’s a couple that lives near me. Over the years, I’ve seen them work long hours to build their own businesses — he in sales and she in consulting. I’ve come to know the two children they adopted, and for whom they’ve made a loving home. I watched as they remodeled a spare room for her mom to live in when she could no longer live alone. So I’m not inclined to dismiss my neighbors — and certainly not to think them evil or insane — merely because they’ve posted a lawn sign supporting a national candidate with whom I disagree.
“In this age of bitter partisanship and social division,” writes Ryan Streeter, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “unity and social healing are not only possible but happening every day when we work with and rely on those who are closest to us.”
In the 2019 Survey on Community and Society, Streeter and colleagues found that most Americans get a stronger sense of community from those they’re close to, including neighbors, than from “their ethnicity or political ideology.” Moreover, they found we’re 11 times more likely to report high levels of confidence in our neighbors than in the federal government, and 5 times more than in our city councils. Seventy-three percent of us say our neighbors can be counted on to do the right thing.
So let’s not wait for the next natural or even man-made disaster to reach out to our neighbors. We have a strong enough motive: healing the bitter partisanship that infects our country.
How to get started? I think it’s just one neighbor at a time. You don’t even have to sleep over. All it takes is making a phone call, sending an email, or ringing a bell.
Peter Lovenheim is a journalist and author of six books. His 2011 book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, won the First Annual Zócalo Public Square Book Prize. He is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon.
Originally appeared at Zócalo Public Square
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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Have you ever sat eagerly at a desk, pen in hand, to scrawl an epically heartfelt love letter to your dearest, only to find you have disappointingly little to say? The stakes are high, and the pressure is on to put your deepest affections on paper, but somehow it all seems hokey and inadequate.
It’s safe to say that Charles Dickens, a writer whose work numbers in the tens of thousands of pages, did not have this problem. At least, he did not experience difficulty writing lengthy, expressive letters to his friends. His longtime wife, Catherine, received comparatively practical correspondence around the time that he was composing toothsome letters to acquaintances with hopes of bringing them together.
This magazine published a batch of Dickens’s letters in 1901, “The Platonic Love Letters of Charles Dickens,” that showed “Dickens in a new and in an altogether delightful character — that of the man who, though his own love troubles took an early place in his life, was able to throw himself into the fortunes of his friends with an abandonment that is unique.”
The Post did not disclose the identities of the man and woman to whom Dickens wrote in 1844 because one of them was still alive at the time. The couple was Thomas James Thompson and Christiana Jane Weller (who died in 1910). As he describes in his letter, Dickens saw Weller perform as a pianist in Liverpool and was immediately enraptured by her beauty. It would be a difficult task to find any of the author’s writing about his own wife that compares to his gushing praise of Weller in his letters to Thompson (“I would answer it to myself if any world’s breath whispered me that I had known her but a few days, that hours of hers are years in the lives of common women”).
While the letters of legendary authors remind us of their uncommon talent for using the English language, they can also serve as templates for our own communication. Even if you can’t string together complex, wordy images like Dickens, you can still write to your acquaintances in the longform, and the prose that transpires could surprise you. Without the pressure to live up to a romantic ideal, platonic letters can focus on a different kind of love. Friendship, while perhaps less urgent than romance, is as lasting and deep. To start, take a (literal) line from Dickens, and use his post script: “P.S. I don’t seem to have said half enough.”
Charles Dickens to Thomas James Thompson:
Thirteenth March, 1844.
My dear — : ‘Think of Italy!’ Don’t give that up! Why, my house is entered at Phillips’s and at Gillows’, to be let for twelve months; my letter of credit lies ready at Coutts’s; my last number of Chuzzlewit comes out in June; and the first week (if not the first day) in July sees me — God willing — steaming off toward the sun.
Yes. We must have a few books—and everything that is idle, sauntering and enjoyable. We must lie down in the bottom of those boats, and devise all kinds of engines for improving on that gallant holiday. I see myself in a striped shirt, moustache, blouse, red sash, straw hat, and white trousers, sitting astride a mule, and not caring for the clock. the day of the month, or the day of the week. Tinkling bells upon the mule, I hope? I look forward to it, day and night ; and wish the time were coming. Don’t you give it up. That’s all.
I feel what you say in respect of your old suffering, and quite understood it as being expressed in your former letter. No man can enter on such lists with one who has trodden them, if he only know them in imagination.
At the father, I snap my fingers. I would leap over the head of the tallest father in Europe, if his daughter’s heart lay on the other side, and were worth having.
As to my chance of having it—well, I think I could make a guess about that (tessellating a great many little things together) which should not be very wide of the mark.
But I would not tarry, where I could not resolve. For aught you know, you may deal a heavier wound than you receive; and you certainly will not salve your own by keeping it open. You will crucify nothing but yourself upon that Diamond Cross—unless it be herself too.
If you come to town, I shall look to see you immediately. If you remain there, to hear from you. In either case, to go abroad with you, stay there with you, and come back with you.
Always, my dear —,
Faithfully your friend,