By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Not long ago, a neighbor of ours died. Only then did we discover that he and my husband shared a passion for studying the Civil War.
His widow lamented how these two men, who lived a block apart, would have loved talking for hours, sharing books and maybe even visiting battlefields together. Who knew?
Some people dream of living in communities where children pop in and out of one another's houses, where adults gather on front porches for riveting conversations, where gardeners trade bounty over back fences.
Others don't want that much closeness.
But most of us would like more than just a nodding acquaintance with neighbors.
What seems to have been easy and natural decades ago, when mothers were home and kids played outside for hours, takes a bit more effort today. That's especially true when there's no organization such as a homeowners association to get things started.
Sure, we're all busy, but other factors can hinder neighborliness.
People drive into their garages, close the door automatically, then proceed inside.
Some houses are set back from the street, with only long driveways bridging the gap. Others sit along busy streets with no sidewalks, so strolling the neighborhood is not an option.
And as we come and go, we are often focused more on hand-held electronic devices than on our surroundings.
After years of writing for The Post's Where We Live feature, I'm amazed at the number of neighborhoods -- even those where people talk about community togetherness or active homeowners associations -- where piles of newspapers build up at the end of someone's front walk, ignored by neighbors.
Beyond missing out on connecting with a potential kindred spirit, it's just uncomfortable to be around people who don't know or even acknowledge one another.
Knowing your neighbors doesn't mean you have to be bosom buddies. But it can increase neighborhood security and a sense of belonging.
Do you have a trusted neighbor or two to check on your house, plants, mail or pets when you're away, or to keep those newspapers from accumulating? And do you return the favor?
Can neighborhood children count on you to help in an emergency? Does anyone notice if an elderly resident hasn't been out for a few days? Do you know which car belongs to whom?
It's not about being a busybody; it's about being . . . well, neighborly.
Even homeowners associations don't guarantee neighborliness. One Loudoun County resident complained, "We do have an HOA, but it doesn't do anything except collect and hoard funds and throw a picnic -- twice since 2004 when we moved here. It has done nothing to build community where we live."
Often, it's up to individuals to be the catalysts.
Simply knocking on a door to say hello isn't always the solution. Some people are private and don't like the intrusion. For others, the timing of unexpected company may be unsettling -- the baby is sick, the house is a cluttered mess, the phone is ringing.
However, leaving a note introducing yourself -- especially to newcomers -- may do the trick.
When a new neighbor moved in a few years ago, I noticed a kayak in the garage, so I dropped off my list of favorite local paddling spots. That opened the door to a nice casual friendship.
If you're lucky enough to have a front porch or neighborhood sidewalks, you have a ready-made "meet the neighbors" environment. Enjoy your morning coffee outside, or catch up on mail and the newspaper there in the evening.
"Gardening is a great way to get to know your neighbors," said Elisabeth Higgins Null, a writer and researcher living in downtown Silver Spring. "Just admiring plants and asking for information helps."
Walking the dog -- especially a really cute dog -- guarantees some conversation. However, I can't tell you the number of times people in various neighborhoods have told me, "We know the names of every dog, but not those of their owners."
And yet, when Katy O'Grady of Fairfax City sought assistance for a park cleanup, her dog-walking fame helped. She distributed fliers with her name and the notation, "with the two black greyhounds." She said, "Everyone knew who I was."
Who has time to play phone tag? Null noted that much of her "extraordinary warm community" is because of neighborhood e-mail lists that discuss "everything from lost pets and plant swaps, to traffic calming needs, to local redevelopment efforts, to local parties, performances and political gatherings."
One group uses electronic invitations for First Friday wine nights on Capitol Hill. Hosting duties rotate among e-mail list members. Guests each bring an inexpensive bottle of wine keyed to a theme. For example, one host's daughter is named Sophia, so guests were asked to bring wine beginning with the letter S.
Local writer Amy Nazarov said, "One of the beauties of First Friday is how little the hosts have to do." Run the vacuum, put out some crackers and cheese -- maybe some grapes -- and you're done. No one expects a big spread.
When Nazarov and her husband hosted a gathering just after the election, they asked guests to bring a bottle of American red wine. Newcomers are always invited and often sign up to host future gatherings.
Nazarov said there's a big benefit to playing host. "The baby's asleep upstairs, and we're downstairs enjoying adult conversation." No babysitter needed.
Khadeejah Akyurt of Pimmit Hills in Fairfax County frequently joins neighbors for a monthly coffee and tea gathering, where neighbors chat, catch up on local news and discuss predetermined topics. "We all bring goodies, and the host makes tea and coffee available. Very minimal costs are involved."
Since 1999, neighbors in one block of Jocelyn Street NW have held quarterly progressive dinners. Appetizers and drinks are at one house, the main dinner is at another, and desserts and coffee are at a third.
Hosting duties rotate, and everyone contributes a dish to at least one of the three hosts.
"It's been a terrific way to get to know people, see their houses, share information and build community," Janet Dinsmore said. "While not everyone on the block participates, the overwhelming majority do, bringing along students who rent, visiting relatives, their new offspring and updates on their lives."
She cautioned, "There's never a perfect date for everyone." One of the advantages to being an organizer or host is having a say in when the event will happen.
Is there a master gardener in your neighborhood? Maybe he or she would host a how-to session.
Give a "one free task" coupon to newcomers. Offer a specific service such as a tour of the neighborhood, an hour of yardwork or assistance moving furniture.
Give the book club a new twist. Instead of having folks discuss the same tome, have each bring a favorite recent read to talk about. It's a great way to learn about new-to-you topics or authors.
Seeking solutions to local problems can bring people together. Whether it's dealing with traffic issues or debris in a local park, it takes just a few fliers placed in doors to find those who share your concern. Just be careful that you don't get to the point where, when neighbors see you coming, they hide for fear of being hit with requests to sign petitions or make donations. Pick your battles.
A block-long yard sale can also draw folks out of their houses. Again, there's little organization needed -- just some flyers announcing the date, posters along main roads (check with local ordinances as to what's allowed), and maybe a lemonade stand staffed by neighborhood kids.
Neighborhood parks are great meeting places. Dog owners in Alexandria's Ford's Landing gather on a grassy area beside the development just before work, coffee cups in hand, chatting while their pups get exercise.
In the evenings, some residents bring glasses of wine down to the community's waterfront patio just before dinner. No organization needed, no schedule. They just show up when it's convenient.
O'Grady said that her neighborhood organized a low-key block party several years ago, hosted by two neighbors. Everyone on the street was invited. "We only did it once, but we made connections that have lasted for years."
Of course, your casual getting-to-know-you event may take on a life of its own.
In 1999, Phil Savarie and Joe Sozio were bachelors living on the same street in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood. "We didn't know each other at first, but soon found we had hundreds of mutual friends," Savarie said.
They also found they loved throwing parties -- big parties. Their annual block party now attracts 200 or more neighbors. Over the years, the party evolved into a kid-friendly event complete with bands that play for free because members live on the street. There's now a fire pit for atmosphere, rented chairs and tables, and decorations that include tablecloths and candles.
Save-the-date fliers are sent out a month or more in advance as permits are obtained to close off the street. Residents donate salads or desserts and bring their own meat to grill. A local Chinese restaurant volunteered to contribute dishes of lo mein and other treats because the owners wanted to be part of the community.
A handful of families do the organizing, spending $400 to $500. They recoup most of that through donations.
"Word gets around," Savarie said.
Freelance writer Ann Cameron Siegal has profiled more than 100 local neighborhoods for The Washington Post's Where We Live feature.