The pursuit of happiness often ends as near as next door.
This Christmas, a friend gave me a thoughtful gift touted as a guide to “live simply, live well, make a difference.” Sustainable Happiness edited by Sarah van Gelder, co-founder and editor in chief of YES! Magazine, features some of the magazine’s popular articles on happiness. The book was an inspirational read on my flight to my hometown for the holidays.
Of particular interest was a story titled The Hidden Treasures in Your Neighborhood by John McKnight and Peter Block. I met John, a nationally known community organizer, through my work in community outreach when he came to my city to share his techniques on “building communities from the inside out.” Ironically, back then I was too busy to practice what I preach. Usually at work from dawn to dusk, I rarely interacted with my own neighbors. The woman next door joked that she knew I was alive because my garbage can appeared and disappeared from the curb. Now that I am retired I have more time to be a better neighbor. Coincidentally, John’s story is about a neighborhood where elderly men were recruited to share their talents—from fishing and mechanics to barbecuing and mathematics—with young boys. Their friendships and activities touched family after family, gradually creating a close community.
In a recent column the editor of our local newspaper wrote how his “neighborhood became a community” in one afternoon thanks to newcomers who distributed get-together invitations to all 90 houses. That’s exactly what it takes, and how it works. He identified with busy folks who, once home, close the garage door and communicate more with faraway friends via social media than with those down the street.
My block gets high marks in neighborliness. From young families to seniors, we know, help and often depend on each other. At least twice a year we come together with potluck dishes and bottles of wine to socialize and nurture relationships. I’m lucky to live here, and I know it.
Still, when I reminisce about the street where I grew up—which I did reading that book on the plane—I realize how different most neighborhoods are today, no matter how cordial and well-intended the residents.
Experts like John McKnight cite disappearing front porches in favor of backyard decks as a major cause of the disconnect. The design of sprawling subdivisions discourages gathering out front after dinner to chat with neighbors and watch the kids play.
The camaraderie, visibility and just plain numbers of people promoted safety, too.
As a small-town teenager visiting a big city in the 1960s I felt surprisingly safe walking alone on the crowded sidewalks of my grandmother’s South Philadelphia neighborhood where the evening ritual consisted of, what she called, sitting on the stoop. Even if a family had just one or two steps between their door and the sidewalk, they perched there and on folding chairs to catch a breeze and the latest news.
Most houses in my childhood neighborhood had front porches, where we would leave bicycles and other toys overnight and find them there the next morning. Wooden screen doors were seldom locked, especially during the day, and everyone on the block and beyond knew each other. As young children we wandered for hours … popping in and out of each other’s houses, riding our bikes—without helmets—eight blocks to the public playground, roaming wherever our creativity and energy took us … always showing back up at home for lunch and dinner. On warm evenings we went back outside to catch lightning bugs, play tag and gather, usually on our bikes, under the corner streetlight when it started to get dark.
By the time I had children of my own in the 1970s, awareness of dangers, real or not, brought changes. In that same small town, my young boys didn’t play even in our front yard unattended. As they grew and matured they went off on their own, of course, but they never knew the freedom to drift for hours as we did in the innocent ‘50s.
In the news recently a couple was investigated for child neglect for allowing their 10- and 6-year-old children to walk together without an adult around their neighborhood. The parents maintain that the only thing that changed between now and the ‘70s—when they grew up and most kids freely roamed their neighborhoods—is our fear.
If I was a protective mother, I’m a paranoid grandmother.
How much things have changed hit me hard 12 years ago when my granddaughter was 4. She and I were visiting my mother, who still lived in my childhood home. A few of my friends stopped by and I gave her permission to play in the side yard where we could see her from the dining room window. Repeatedly she came in to ask if she could play in the back yard, which was out of our sight. Each time I said no. “I ran all around this neighborhood when I wasn’t much older than she is,” I told my friends, “how sad that I won’t let her play in our own back yard.” Most likely, she would have been fine. But I wasn’t taking that chance.