Neighbors: Are We Still Connected to the People Next Door?

A week ago, we arrived home at 12:30AM and walked through the garage into the backyard where our downstairs neighbors were throwing a party. It was late, we were tired, and they were all relatively young. Yet I smiled and said hello and smiled again as one of the hosts introduced himself (he had apparently moved in recently with the other neighbor whom we had met a couple years ago) and offered us a beer. He swore up and down that he had knocked on our door to warn us about the party and to invite us to join them. Obviously we had been out at the time and he seemed on edge regarding our potential reaction. "It's cool," I said, "no worries." He smiled; relaxed. The party continued as we went upstairs to our place to sleep as best we could, our bedroom window right above the racket.

Growing up, we lived in a small house in the suburbs on a busy street a short distance from our school. I knew the elderly lady to our left quite well. She'd always have cookies ready for my visits. The couple next to her had a teenage daughter I idealized, as did the neighbors across the street with their house full of teens. Further to the right there were two girls our age that lived in the house on the corner. We were surrounded by people I adored.

I was heart-broken when we moved when I was 6 or 7. Yet it didn't take my parents long to meet all the families in our new neighborhood and for us to meet the kids. Soon I was riding my bike up and down the street with them, playing in the stream in the backyard, or shooting hoops with them in our sloping driveway. The neighbors appreciated it when the snow came and my dad who had a side-business plowing driveways, plowed theirs for free. And I will never forget the day the elderly neighbor across the street came yelling and crying into our driveway looking for my father. Her house had been broken-into and he was the first person to whom she naturally turned.

My parents taught me not only to respect my neighbors, but to also reach out to them. You never knew when you'd need a cup of sugar or one more egg for the cookie batter. They'd watch your house while you were gone, and you'd feed their cat when they went on vacation. My parents, having since moved from our childhood home, tell me stories about their current neighbors when I visit and often describe the ways in which they support one another.

I've found it difficult to connect with my neighbors in quite the same way. Perhaps it's the difference between the city and the suburbs or perhaps it's because, while I have managed to become rooted in one place or another, there's a constant coming and going of those surrounding me. We smile, wave, make small talk, but I'd be hesitant to ask any of them for an egg if I needed one, and we always hire a cat sitter when we go out of town.

This seems indicative of the many ways in which community disputes, particularly neighbor disputes, seem to be impacting so many people currently. As housing costs go up and people cram into smaller living spaces, tensions rise. Does anyone drop off a pie with a smile for the new neighbor anymore? If they did, how would it be greeted? With surprise? Distrust? Confusion? Or would it be welcomed with a cup of coffee and conversation? Regardless of how many people have moved into the condo next door over the past 5 years, doesn't it still make sense to reach out to each and every new person who arrives? After all, we share the same streetlights, mail-carrier, and air quality.

If we did reach out more to our neighbors, if we truly tried to connect with them, would it prevent arguments over the dimensions of a fence, the barking of a dog, the tree branches banging against the roof? Would we be more willing to say "I'm sorry"? Would we actually consider having that beer if offered despite the late hour, loud music, and age of present company?

By Laura L. Noah
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