When I moved from downtown to a suburban neighborhood two years ago, I knew there would be challenges. For the first time in a decade, I couldn’t walk to do errands. And I rarely saw a pedestrian from my home office window.
I expected to meet my neighbors and join the community, but I was too shy to knock on doors. I met a few people while gardening in the front yard, but I lacked a sense of belonging. I had fantasies of study groups, produce-sharing networks and community gardens. But I didn’t know where to begin.
Meet the neighbors
Three doors down, Rebecca Valentine also longed for community. She’d lived on our street for 10 years and hardly knew anyone. She envied friends who had block parties, emergency networks and a sense of neighborhood camaraderie. She also had a keen interest in the challenges posed by climate change and resource depletion, and wondered how neighbors could work together to address these issues. But, like me, she worried about whether political or religious disparities might get in the way.
Rebecca and I are not alone in our longing for community. As Dan Chiras and David Wann point out in their book Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods (New Society Publishers, 2003), "Many residents of suburban neighborhoods, where the majority of the American population now lives, express a longing for a stronger sense of place, including stronger connections with people, local traditions and nature."
Their first suggestion for building community: Sponsor neighborhood dinners.
Rebecca had already come to that conclusion. "Have a potluck," she says. "People can usually have a good time over food." She set up a progressive meal—a fun tradition in which people walk from house to house working through the courses of a meal. Before long, Rebecca had enlisted three houses.
Around that time, as if on cue, something upped the ante: Our placid neighborhood’s sense of safety was shattered by a murder and robbery right around the corner. My next-door neighbor called to see if I was all right, and we realized neither of us had phone numbers for any of our other neighbors. We knew something had to change.
Later that week, I found Rebecca’s invitation in my mailbox: "Come to a progressive luncheon! Get to know your neighbors!" I was delighted.
On the appointed day, I carried a tray of appetizers to Rebecca’s house. I hovered over the buffet with a bunch of people I’d never seen. We started to introduce ourselves. "Oh, you’re the one with the interesting license plate," it would go, or "the persimmon tree." People swapped stories as if they’d known each other for years.
We strolled together to the second house, where we piled our plates and sat at big tables in new groupings. We discovered mutual interests and chatted about neighborhood history. We talked about the murder, who’d seen and heard what, and whose back yards the fleeing gunmen passed through. Everyone agreed we needed better neighborhood communication. Some offered to host our next gathering. Several suggested creating a telephone and e-mail list, an idea very close to Chiras and Wann’s second step: "Establish a community newsletter, bulletin board and roster."
Gee, I wondered, could it be that this is a natural process?
And now …
Rebecca and I are brainstorming what’ll be next. She’s concerned about food security in the era of fossil-fuel depletion. The city owns a grassy lot in our neighborhood; she pictures a community garden there. "If it really is going to be a community garden, though, other people would have to be into it," she says. "So I need to get to know them, find out what they’re interested in." She envisions a place where people can putter together, help water plants, hang out on a bench and talk.
"It’s all about food," Rebecca says, "how you grow it, how you prepare it, who can bring what to the table, celebrating the harvest and coming together to share at the potluck."
Neighborhood discussion groups are another strategy that Chiras and Wann recommend. Rebecca wants to start a study group on climate change where people come together to share. "We need to learn to respect each other’s differences and learn from each other," she says. "If we can’t do that in our neighborhoods, how can we ever live in harmony around the globe?"
Then there’s that persimmon tree down the street. Our neighbors have more persimmons than they can eat. My fruit trees produce more apples, pears, plums and cherries than I know what to do with. How about a neighborhood fruit exchange?
And skills! In our neighborhood, we have a bicycle repair person, a car detailer, a guitar maker, a lawyer, a builder, an artist and more. We’re dreaming of compiling a neighborhood map and resource guide. Soon we’ll be able to call each other to ask everything from "Did you hear that noise?" to "Do you want to go for coffee?" or "Can I hire you to fix my widget?"
The potential is limitless, and we plan to boost the process. Now that we all know each other, it’s amazing that getting together in the first place seemed so hard.
Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and the co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). She co-directs the EcoDwelling program at New College of California (www.NewCollege.edu/northbay). Share your experiences with her at CVenolia@NaturalHomeMagazine.com.