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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When Neighbors Rarely Talk

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Nov 14, 2012

By Thom Nickels

What does it take to make a good neighborhood? Without question, the answer is communication and openness among neighbors. While they say that "good fences" make good neighbors, what about the opposite of that? Do fences that are too high make for indifferent neighbors? Do high fences make for neighbors who never communicate, or isolate themselves and never get to know a single person on the block? Is this a good thing? Granted, we all value privacy, but can there be liabilities in a world of excess privacy?

I’m thinking especially of a nice couple that moved from our block this year to a new home in New England. They moved here a few years before I did in 2002, but circumstances prevented us from getting to know one another until a few years ago. For five years we said nothing to each other, although their house was very close to my house. In those days I never received so much as a wave or a "Good morning" from either of them. Even eye contact was minimal. I was politely ignored for no specific reason other than the fact that they didn’t seem interested in getting to know anyone on the block.

The fact that this couple seemed to have a little more money than most people here, plus two new cars and a much larger house, may have had played a part in this. Sometimes people make assumptions about others because of economic factors. We have all met people who assume that because someone doesn’t own a car or make a certain level of income they can’t possibly be considered successful. However, intelligent, talented people can be poor. They may also not care about new cars or hiring the most expensive contractors. I’m not saying that this couple thought this way; they probably just didn’t like people very much.

Later, when I got to know the couple, we’d have dinner together and I’d invite them to parties at my house. Throughout this high-contact cycle I continued to get the impression that they were unhappy with the neighborhood. While no neighborhood is perfect, to exaggerate a street’s imperfections so that those "reasons" become an excuse for self-imposed isolation is never a healthy thing.

They were always against the idea of block parties, a stance I could never quite understand even if so many block parties tend to be tacky affairs with loud (usually bad) music, burnt hot dogs, kiddie trampolines, and ear-splitting karaoke. But "tacky," in my book, can be as much fun as going to a B-movie, like The Rocky Horror Show. It’s also a chance to chat with neighbors.

This couple’s extreme isolation from everybody in the neighborhood was tested when one of their cats disappeared. Understandably, they were devastated. Together they walked the neighborhood looking for the lost kitty. The direness of the situation forced them to speak with neighbors they had never spoken to before. They had to open up because they needed help. "Did you see our cat?" they’d ask, as some neighbors replied, "Who are you? You live—where?" When the couple needed the neighborhood, they expected everybody to jump. Whether they got that response I cannot be sure, although I am certain that the incident opened a window for them: the realization that nobody, not even a couple, is an island, that neighbors need neighbors and that people on the same block should talk to one another once in a while.

One of the nice things about Philly neighborhoods is that people do talk to one another, unlike the situation in Center City, where residents of apartment buildings can go years without knowing anything about their neighbors except what can be gained during one-minute or less elevator rides. There are hermits in the Egyptian desert who must feel less lonely than many people who live in Center City apartment buildings.

People come up with a lot of strange reasons as to why they cannot get to know their neighbors: They’re not my kind of people; they’re foreign, uppity, low-class, high-class, weird, dirty, not in my league, I don’t like their friends, etc. When the first wave of gentrification hit Fishtown several years ago, there were complaints from indigenous locals that the out-of-town gentrification folks who were moving in and rehabbing houses built walls around themselves and not only wouldn’t talk but wouldn’t make eye contact either. Resentment built like funeral pyres in India because of this attitude. "They think they’re better than we are," one guy told me then. "When I say hello to them when they walk their dogs, they just stare past me into space."

This is no way to build community. While there may be a sense of suburban comfort in hibernating in your own space and never mixing with neighbors, the downside occurs when it comes to emergencies like a lost cat or keeping criminals away. Criminals are more likely to come in if they know that the residents on a certain street are disinterested in their neighbors.

Before that distant couple moved to New England last month, I visited them to say good-bye. During our talk I could see a look of worry on their faces. Moving is a difficult task and the strain was showing. I tried to buoy their mood by remarking, "Well, just think of this move as an adventure, as a Jack Kerouac road trip…think of the new friends you will meet in your new place." At this, the husband shrugged, "Oh yeah, just like the friends we made on this block." Bingo!

I didn’t say a word, although my mind raced back to my first few years here when they opted to remain strangers, and how it took a cat emergency to open the doors of communication.

On the day of the couple’s move, I watched as the van emptied their house over the course of many hours. The house stood empty until the following day when the new buyers came on the scene, inspiring a super-friendly local to go over and say hello. But the neighborly introduction didn’t seem to have much of an effect. I may be all wet, but it seemed to me that the new folks weren’t all that interested.