Peter Lovenheim’s memoir In the Neighborhood was more or less what I expected from the subtitle: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. After a murder suicide takes place a few houses down from him, Lovenheim makes it a personal goal to get to know the people with whom he shares his street. Some neighbors give him the cold shoulder, but others embrace his efforts, welcoming him into their homes and sharing their own perspectives on what makes a neighborhood a community.
Lovenheim did research on communities around the world that foster a healthy feeling of togetherness among members. He quotes the Australian social scientists jenny Onyx and Paul Bullen: “Simply put, if you know your neighbors, greet them on the street, keep an eye on their house for them, or invite them to dinner, this builds connections that in good times can enrich your sense of community, and in bad times can give you someone nearby to call for help” (64). In pursuit of that kind of community, Lovenheim meets up with a few neighbors, but soon gets discouraged by the neighbors that turn him down for various reasons. I empathized with him because I’ve also searched out connections with my neighbors and sometimes people just aren’t interested.
For over two years Lovenheim gets to know his next door neighbors: the mailman, newspaper deliverer, a lady that has walked in the neighborhood for decades, and many others that he tries to nonchalantly connect over the long-term. He eventually makes the match of an ill woman with an elderly man in search of something to do with his life. When her first met Patti and discovered her illness, he asked her, “So how does it feel to be surrounded by people who know your difficult situation but who are not available to talk to, or to be of any help or comfort?” (142). This question really made me think about who of the people living near me might be experiencing extremely difficult times that I have no way to know about if I simply smile and wave from across the street. Maybe there are ways I could be helping, but I won’t know until I ask.
At the end of the memoir, Lovenheim experiences his own difficult time and his grateful for the friends he has made living all around him over the previous years of his “social experiment.” Walking through his neighborhood contemplating his life he says “All these lights, and others, taken together formed a sort of constellation for me, a picture of my neighbors inside their homes, living their lives, side by side with mine. Picturing myself as one point of light within that constellation was comforting” (220). He takes shelter in his friend and neighbor Lou’s house and feels the comfort that usually only comes from family.
My favorite part of the book was the references to communities around the world that are making strides toward creating a sense of collective togetherness. In Columbus, Ohio in a neighborhood called Old Oaks the neighbors take turn hosting “Wednesdays on the Porch” where the community can gather and spend time together (233). The Caldera Arts Organization sponsored a project in ten communities in Oregon. “Photographer Julie Keefe Joined with middle school students to interview and photograph neighbors as part of a statewide arts project called ‘Hello Neighbor.’” Then they hung mural-size black-and-white photographs with text throughout the communities to introduce the neighborhood to its children and neighbors to each other” (234). One woman suggested simply starting a garden in the front yard and being receptive to those that stroll by and want to chat (235).
Overall it was an encouraging and motivating story. We are moving in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the ideas in the book that will help create a network of friends among the people I will soon share a street with.