Once, when our son was a newborn, a couple of our neighbors mowed our lawn when they noticed it had gotten quite long. I was home with our son during the day, but my husband was back to work and regularly gone 12+ hours a day, so cutting the grass just wasn’t high on our list of priorities, though we had definitely realized it was growing past “acceptable” length.
The neighbors closest to our house have adult children, but they obviously remember what it was like to be completely overwhelmed with that first new baby, so when they saw us struggling, they stepped in.
Unassuming, the first neighbor walked across the street to make sure that he would not offend us by presuming that we wanted help, but I was so thankful for it. He began, and soon, another neighbor emerged from his home and helped him finish the job. While our front yard doesn’t have a huge grassy area, we do have quite a few raised beds, so the work takes quite a bit longer because of all the edging required than would a typical front lawn. They finished up, and went home.
Perhaps it was a little thing, and not a huge expenditure of time and energy, but it meant so much to us as new, overwhelmed parents. I managed to bake them a plate of cookies as a small token of my gratitude, but even four years later, I doubt they realize how much that small gesture meant to me.
Not all neighborhoods are alike
The neighborhood we moved from previously was just twenty minutes away, but worlds apart in terms of community. We lived there just a year, but we got to know no one during that time. Sure, we could recognize a few faces and would wave as we passed, but that was about it. We knew a couple names, but not a single phone number. Certainly no one would have come and mown our lawn; likely they wouldn’t even have noticed the help was needed.
The neighborhood we lived in wasn’t bad, by any means, but it could hardly be called much more than simply a street with houses on it; it was definitely not a community in the true sense of the word. We lived there, but singly. We never had any kind of interaction with the people who lived near us beyond what we would experience walking down a random but familiar street.
Then again, we didn’t try. The community didn’t exist, and we didn’t make any real effort to foster it. To be perfectly honest, the idea that the groups of strangers who lived around us would be anything beyond pleasant acquaintances wasn’t something we considered. We had no plans to live there long term (it was simply a stepping stone on the way to buying our own home), but I don’t know that our expectations would have changed if we did have long term plans to stay in that home.
Finding Our Forever Home
We moved into our current home seven and a half years ago, even then with the expectation that it was where we would raise our family for the long term. We had no considerations of the move being a stepping stone to a better, larger, home, but instead that this was the place we wanted to put down deep roots.
Perhaps our response to the neighborhood would have been different had we not expected to stay very long, but I don’t think so. The tradition of a connected community had been in place for decades before we moved in; we simply continued an idea that already solidly existed. We hear stories about snow days when they set up hot chocolate bars and bonfires and hung out for hours while the kids sledded (the goal is this year to pick that back up). Kids biking in circles around the cul de sac like they do now. In general, life was lived outside and together much of the time.
Now that we know what a fabulous neighborhood looks like and what it takes to foster one, I expect we would encourage it even in a different location, but we first had to experience to know what we’d been missing before we moved in.
The neighborhood I grew up in had some connectedness with a few of the surrounding neighbors, but it was still very much a street of homes where some people knew each other. That was my frame of reference before we moved into this current neighborhood, and what it would have continued to be had things already been in place to a degree.
What Our Neighborhood Really Looks Like
We bought our home from a neighbor who still lives on our street, and we were first introduced to the people who lived in the other homes at the top of the cul de sac through them. Beyond that, we slowly met the rest of our neighbors, beginning with one who knows pretty much everyone within a half mile radius.
This “meeting” though extended beyond a simple hello and introduction, and I think much of that is due to the fact that many of them have lived on our street for a good twenty years or more. They raised their families there and then have continued to stay. Some have even told me they meant to stay, but never got around to leaving. I can absolutely understand the draw of the special neighborhood connection as an induction to put down deeper roots than you’d meant to. Once you experience the close knit community, it has to be hard to leave, because you know you won’t find it elsewhere. And that longevity fosters more connectivity as well.
I’ve written about our neighborhood off and on with this blog since I first started it, but it’s not hard to come up with things to say because it’s a regular occurrence to have something be worth a mention in my Friday’s Frugal Five.
Small Town Feel
In some ways, our neighborhood feels like a small town, even though we’re nestled in a city of 80,000 people and just outside of the outskirts of Seattle. If I need to borrow a cup of sugar, I really can call on a neighbor, and as long as they have some, I know they will be more than willing to share. Or, as the case may be, a battery for our thermostat and to send up their husband to help me take a look at the underlying problem.
Our homes are generally not huge or glamorous, though plenty nice enough, and during any weather that isn’t a downpour people can be seen outside in their front yards. I found that growing a garden in our front yard (initially due to lack of sunlight in the back yard) was probably the best thing I could have done to continue that connection.
Since I spend a considerable time out front, and so do my other neighbors, we end up chatting quite often out in the middle of the street about anything and everything. It’s amazing how much you can get to know and be comfortable around another person if you just have regular, casual conversations with them.
These short chats also come out of the fact that the grocery store and a small shopping center are just a few blocks away; when you walk to the store often enough, you’re again passing by your neighbors and more likely to pause for a short conversation. These small touches do add up to a real rapport when they happen time and time again.
None of this was a quick process, but a slow burn over the years since we moved into our home. We may have all started out as friendly acquaintances, but occasional neighborhood gatherings and lots of short conversations while walking by has grown a number of those into true friendships.
And beyond friendship, living within our neighborhood means we’re more likely to spend an evening over dinner in someone’s home, staying out of our cars, and living more slowly and sustainably than if we are constantly looking outward. If we all lived more locally, we would all live more frugal, sustainable lives. I love a weekend adventure as much as the next person, but there’s a lot to be said about staying local much of the time.
The downside Of neighborliness
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one real downside of this neighborhood community that exists where we live, because everything is of course not all sunshine and rainbows. Just like any small town, everyone knows each other’s business, and the downsides that come along with that exist in our neighborhood as well. We get all the great bits, but also a little of the drama as well. Nothing overwhelming, but it does exist.
Beyond that, there are some days where even I, as an extreme extrovert, want to take a walk where I will be left alone and I don’t have to talk to anyone. If the day is reasonably nice, though, the odds are good that someone will be outside in the two blocks it takes me to walk to the stop sign and across the main street. All that takes though is a pair of headphones, and I can be on my way, though it is obviously not anonymous in the same way you’d be in a big city.
The Unparalleled Value Of Fabulous Neighbors
I don’t know why we lucked out and landed in the fabulous neighborhood we did, but of all the homes we looked at during our search, I doubt another one was in a community that compares to the one we have. Impromptu gatherings are common, as are the occasional more planned out block parties and dinners. We step up to watch each other’s pets when we go out of town and our children when we have a last minute need. Beyond a cup of sugar, we share weed pullers and car jacks (we all have our own lawn mowers, but there’s a neighbor who works on them as his retirement side project).
While all these things can exist in a larger community, and we have plenty of friends who don’t live in our neighborhood, there’s no substitute for being able to walk down the street instead of getting in your car. We can have drinks together on a Tuesday night, and then simply take the two minute walk home and to bed. The relationships are real, and they are easy. In a world where we are all overbooked and overburdened, there is a simplicity of looking to the people who already surround you.
How do you foster a community?
Now that we’ve lived here for the better part of a decade, I have some answers here, but some of it still feels like magic. Spending time in your front yard is great, but what if no one else does? At some point, it initially takes two families to start the momentum. As I’ve seen, having that in place when new people move in really helps to show that as something that’s normal and just makes sense.
Go for walks. Garden in your front yard. Say hello when you pass a neighbor. Introduce yourself. In a world where we are increasingly connected electronically, we really need to find ways to connect in real life. And I can’t think of a better place to start than simply looking next door.
Do you live in a neighborhood with real community? Do you wish you did?