In February 2000, Peter Lovenheim’s quiet neighborhood outside Rochester, N.Y., was rocked by the murder-suicide of two residents. Few people on the street knew the couple, let alone were in any position to help.
For Lovenheim, a journalist and writing professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, the tragedy made it painfully clear just how disconnected the neighborhood’s residents were from one another.
Shortly thereafter, he set out to study and correct the problem, getting to know his neighbors through a series of interviews and overnight stays in their homes. Nine years later, Lovenheim chronicled the undertaking in his latest book, “In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time” (Penguin, $23.95). Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Lovenheim about his quest and what he discovered along the way.
Our Sunday Visitor: When you undertook this project, how did your neighbors react?
Peter Lovenheim: About half the people I approached agreed and let me sleep over. Even the people who declined, however, made it clear that they had a similar desire — to know and be known by their neighbors. I didn’t run in to anybody who said they enjoyed living as strangers to each other. Now, when I left for my first overnight stay, my teenage daughter said I was crazy. But what I think is crazy is that we can spend years living side by side with our neighbors, but have almost no interaction or sense of community. We live these separate, parallel lives. It’s such a terrible loss. We miss out on so many opportunities.
OSV: What kind of opportunities?
Lovenheim: Some as simple as being able to borrow a cup of sugar when you run short, or having people close to you whose company you can enjoy, unplanned, on a daily basis. A close-knit neighborhood is safer and more secure. There also are emergencies where nobody other than the person next door or down the street can help you. Internet friends aren’t there, and friends from the health club or church can’t get there fast enough. Even more important, it enriches your life to interact with those who have separate interests, skills, histories and viewpoints to share. I believe the neighborhood was meant to be one of those fundamental building blocks of society, a place where you could interact with people who were familiar, but who didn’t always think or believe the same.
OSV: All that seems self-evident, but is it?
Lovenheim: It is to a lot of older people. They tend to remember the way neighborhoods were when they were growing up. I don’t think it is to most younger people. They don’t seem to know anything different.
OSV: Why is that? What changed?
Lovenheim: To start with, people’s lives are busier. There are two-career couples. There’s lots of time spent in front of television and the Internet. People also seem to be affected by a fear of the stranger. There’s almost a sense that if you don’t know somebody, they’re likely to be dangerous.
OSV: What about the way our neighborhoods are designed and houses built?
Lovenheim: Architecture and city planning certainly can be factors. If you’re living in a suburban neighborhood built in the last 20-30 years, with wide lots and McMansions set far back from the street, you’re going to have a harder time making a connection with the neighbors than if you live in an older urban neighborhood with sidewalks and front porches.
New Urbanism — the move to create or retrofit existing communities with design features of older urban neighborhoods — is a good development. But design alone can’t create close-knit communities. Too many other forces work against it.
OSV: So, based upon your research, this problem transcends geography and socioeconomic demographics?
Lovenheim: I’m not a sociologist, but, yes, it seems to be true across the socioeconomic divide. It also seems to be true of both urban and suburban neighborhoods.
I’ve been getting letters for two years now about this, ever since I wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times. I hear from people in all kinds of neighborhoods. One woman told me she’s lived on the 21st floor of a Manhattan high-rise for 12 years and only knows the name of one person on her floor. I’ve also heard from people who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods who don’t know anyone around them. There’s a lot of fear in those neighborhoods. People tend to almost barricade themselves off.
OSV: What does it take to bridge the divide between neighbors?
Lovenheim: Some neighborhoods have an annual picnic or block party. That’s nice, but an annual event by itself can’t create the lasting healthy community bonds that people want. The neighborhoods that seem to be the most successful have ongoing activities — an event every month or every week. They also often have neighborhood directories, an online list serve, or some social-networking system in place.
There’s a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where for the past seven or eight years, every Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a different neighbor each week hosts a party on their porch. Another neighborhood outside Detroit does a progressive pub party. They designate five or six people to create a “pub” in their house and everyone on the street goes from one house to the next on one night in February.
There’s a community of townhomes in Albany that took down the fences separating their tiny lots so that they could have a large community garden. They maintain the garden together and go out and buy the plantings together. You can see more examples on my website, www.peterlovenheim.com. I’ve been amazed by the things people have invented.
Still, for the most part, being a good neighbor starts with each individual. We need to reach out to our neighbors, and when someone moves in next door, introduce ourselves and make a connection.
Patron of Hospitality (sidebar)
Despite his disastrous beginnings as a host, St. Julian the Hospitaller (date unknown) is known as the patron saint of hospitality.
Legend has it that Julian accidentally killed his own parents when they made a surprise visit to his home. Believing that the two people in his bed were his wife and another man, he slew them, not realizing they were his mother and father. As penance, he went to Rome to seek absolution.
Upon his return home, he built an inn for pilgrims and travellers, going so far as to give his own bed to a leper for a night. When Julian had him settled in, the man suddenly revealed himself to be an angel and announced that Jesus had accepted his penance. His feast day is Feb. 12.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Saints, Patron Saints Index