It began with a tragedy. A couple, both physicians, were raising two young children in a nice suburb in Rochester, New York. And then one night, the husband shot and killed his wife before killing himself. Their 11-year old and 12-year-old ran screaming into the street.
Journalist Peter Lovenheim lived 8 or 9 houses away but hardly knew the family. What haunted him was that no one else in the neighborhood seemed to know them well either.
Lovenheim began to look into the story. On the day of the murder/suicide, the mother, fearing for their safety had tried repeatedly to call a close friend to see if she and her kids could spend the night. Her friend was out-of-town for the day. After school, the woman took her kids to the public library to do their homework to stay out of their house, but by 9 p.m., with nowhere else to go, she took them home and put them to bed.
Her husband had cancelled her cell phone service earlier that day and then disabled her car when she returned home. At that point, her best option would have been to seek out a safe haven with a neighbor, but despite the fact that the family had lived in their home for 7 years, she apparently didn’t know anyone on her street well enough to show up on someone’s doorstep. An hour later, her husband killed her and then himself.
Their children moved away to live with grandparents, and the house was put up for sale. Yet the neighborhood seemed unaffected. “Why is it,” Lovenheim wrote, “in an age of discount airlines, unlimited cell phone minutes and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?”
After thinking about what it takes to build a community for a while, Lovenheim came upon an odd idea: What if he had a one-night sleepover with each neighbor on his street? He started talking to his neighbors and politely inviting himself over to their homes. It was a way to really get to know people beyond what they did for a living and how many children they had. More than half of the neighbors he approached with the idea agreed to have him sleepover and then write about their lives in his book released in April, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.
Lovenheim’s daughter watched her Dad pack his overnight bag and head over to various neighbors’ homes for sleepovers and declared him nuts. My daughter Megan, would die of mortification if I attempted neighborhood sleepovers, but I happen to think Lovenheim’s onto something.
It’s hard work to know people well; to reach outside our reserve and reticence and get to know each other’s stories. Worse yet, knowledge might require us to get involved. In the course of Lovenheim’s sleepovers, he met a woman three doors away who was struggling with breast cancer and in need of assistance. He began to think of ways the neighbors might be able to offer her their collective support.
I’ve been fortunate to live in two neighborhoods where people intentionally reached out to one another. When my kids left on one of their first vacations with their Dad and his girlfriend, I was saying a teary goodbye in the driveway. My then next-door neighbor Allison came over to ask if I wanted to join her family for dinner. I was so relieved not to have to walk back into my silent and empty house.
Other neighbors down the street in my old neighborhood have a summer tradition of setting up an outdoor movie screen in their cul-de-sac and inviting the neighbors to come by with lawn chairs and snacks to watch family movies. Before they started the film, they helped us break-the-ice with neighbors we might not know as well by passing out “worksheets.” Find a neighbor who has the same number of kids as you do and have them sign this paper. Find someone who is traveling out of the United States this summer. And so on. It might be anathema for the introverts among us, but it always takes some effort to begin an acquaintance that could lead to comfortable, lasting friendships.
I was sad to leave my neighbors when I moved homes a year and a half ago. But Day Two in my new home, while I was messing around with the plumbing of a faulty toilet, the doorbell rang. My new next door neighbors had come over to introduce themselves and brought a dozen cupcakes as they had noticed my brood of children. If only I had unpacked my towels and had one in the bathroom! (“Hi! Let me shake your hand with my wet one. No worries, I’ve just been messing around with the toilet!” I’m sure I made a great first impression with them!)
My new neighbors host small dinner parties at each other’s homes, and I was soon invited into the fold. Three dinners at different homes so far and when we were all snowed in during an unusual Seattle snow storm last winter, most of my new neighbors in the cul-de-sac walked over to my house for a Christmas party.
Getting to know our neighbors doesn’t require slumber parties or even dinner-party efforts. Last summer, spur-of-the moment, I stopped by Trader Joe’s for desserts on my way home from work and then called the neighbors to stop by my house for dessert and coffee after dinner.
I heard about a neighborhood in Columbus, OH where, for 7 years, they have hosted “Wednesdays on the Porch.” To date, 85 neighbors have invited neighbors to visit and munch on their front porches (doesn’t even require a clean house).
In San Diego, one neighborhood hosts a parade on New Year’s Day. No one watches because everyone has to be IN the parade.
I’m curious to read about Lovenheim’s sleepover adventures. I guess I can’t help but wonder about a guy who would invite himself over to his neighbors for a sleepover and what his perspective is the morning after. Maybe after I finish the book, I’ll pull out my sleeping bag and think about which neighbors I want to know better!