Brittany Means Carowick - Be the Neighbor You Want

Lately, this phrase has been popping up a lot in my life:

“It’s up to us to make it how it used to be.”

My husband and I have started taking a “Master Homeowner” class, offered by our local Habitat for Humanity. It’s pretty cool—we will learn about multiple aspects of home ownership, from the legal and financial issues of buying a house to how to rewire an electrical outlet or fix basic plumbing issues. Modeled after Master Gardener classes, it’s a good mix of practical and theoretical skills that home owners need to know.

We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about neighborhood relations and home safety. We covered the city’s expectations of property upkeep and maintenance, how to deter burglary, and how to be a good neighbor. Throughout all of this discussion, the importance of knowing and talking to your neighbors has come up again and again. It’s an underlying thread that helps people maintain high property value, feel safer, and respect their neighborhoods. But both instructors and our other classmates have said, “It’s just not like it used to be.”

Here’s how they say it used to be:
People knew their neighbors. They knew their names, their children’s names, their grandkids’ names. They knew their schedules; when they came and went, about what time they turned off their lights at night, and where they liked to park. They would help each other out—grab mail or water plants when someone was out of town, mow their grass if they were sick, and lend cups of flour or sugar.

This made neighborhoods safer. People knew if something was amiss in the neighborhood, and they would check on their neighbors. Someone found their car had been broken into? They would tell everyone on the street, to make sure everyone was vigilant and no one else was missing anything. People felt more secure; they knew if something happened to them, their neighbors would call them or their relatives to check up on them. Did Old Jane’s lights stay on all night, and she didn’t move her car today? Someone would knock and make sure she hadn’t fallen.  Neighbors would chat over fences or while weeding their lawns; if something was wrong, you had a relationship with your neighbor and could talk it out. Sometimes, it was annoying--especially if you were a kid. Your mom would know any trouble you got into before you were even home! But, people who tell these stories laugh about it fondly, wishing their kids were watched after by the whole neighborhood like that now.

And at the end of these reminiscences, our instructor always reminds us that “It’s up to us to make it like it used to be.” That is to say, if you want to live in a good neighborhood, start by being a good neighbor.

This discussion comes at an opportune time for me. It’s getting warm here. We have a big front porch on our house that we share with our housemates, and we’ve been spending a lot of time on it recently. A young family just moved into the house next to us, and the mom is an acquaintance of mine. We’ve started inviting them over to “porch sit” with us.

With these recurring words in my head, I started a Facebook group chat for our housemates and new neighbors.  It’s already helped us become closer (and saved one of us from a parking ticket).

But I still don’t know my other neighbors. Who lives across the street? What are the names of their kids? Who lives on the other side of us? What do they even look like?  

As my husband and I consider and work toward buying a home (outside of our current neighborhood), I find myself wondering if it’s worth investing my time and resources into getting to know my neighbors. I hate that I ask myself that—I don’t think I would have, if we were living in the world as it “used to be.” Is it worth forming new relationships if we might leave soon? Would my neighbors invest in me if they knew I was leaving? I think about my other Fellows, many of who are in communities or neighborhoods they won’t stay in after this year, and wonder if they feel the same way. Do their communities feel that way about them? What is the balance of forming relationships that you know will soon change, with people you know will soon leave?

As I mull over these questions, I’m also reminded that it’s up to us to make the world we want to live in. I want to live in a world where people are kind and considerate, and where they enjoy fellowship with one another and look out for one another. For however long they’ll be around, I want to enjoy fruitful friendships with them that will let us help each other grow. So, I guess it’s up to me to initiate them.