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In Recession, Some See Burst of 'Neighboring'
Tough Times May Be Helping Build Stronger Communities in D.C. Suburbs

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

When Kris Kumaroo founded a new neighborhood association in Silver Spring in October, he was driven by a desire to combat recession-era problems such as vacant homes and petty crime.

Seven months later, Glenmont has its crime watch, but also much more: As the neighbors got out of their homes and started talking to each other, the sense of connection grew. They learned one another's names and began to say hello at the nearby Giant. Somebody got Metro to trim the shrubbery around the Glenmont Station, which made it feel safer. They had a "visioning" session for their community and created a colorful Web site. At their first spring festival, April 25, 174 people showed up for face-painting and hot dogs.

The little Cape Cods and ranchers off Georgia Avenue have been there 55 years, but it took a global downturn to turn them into a real neighborhood.

Some sociologists and community organizers say they think there has been an uptick of "neighboring" in the recession, as residents who just waved hello before are instead reaching out, in person and through e-mail discussion groups. They're talking crime and the economy, helping others through job losses and organizing money-saving potlucks. In Montgomery County, for example, the number of new neighborhood groups has doubled, while in hard-hit Manassas, active groups jumped from five to 20 in the past two years.

"There's been an overwhelming increase in participation overall," said Kisha Wilson-Sogunro, neighborhood services manager for Manassas. "People want to get back to the basics. They understand, especially with the housing crisis, you just don't know who is living next to you, and all of a sudden it's a foreclosure. . . . If you would have been neighborly, you'd know who to call if something's going wrong."

Although the evidence is still largely anecdotal -- U.S. Census and other data won't be available until later this year -- some scholars say the numbers of those involved in community activities could increase for the first time in years, after a long downward spiral that began in the 1970s because of longer commutes and time pressure on two-income families.

Historically, economic hard times can be tough on civic engagement -- involvement dropped during the Great Depression, for example -- but experts say that doesn't take into account new social technologies, a burst of political involvement among the young and a president who has inspired many. Experts are waiting to see whether President Obama's call for service will be felt locally, as it has on such national programs as AmeriCorps.

"Almost anyone in America can think in terms of 'this could happen to me.' It evokes a kind of empathy that is leading people to reassess what they value, what they care about and what they believe in," said John M. Bridgeland, national chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship, a federally chartered nonprofit group that takes the pulse of communities through an annual civic health index. "In my view, we'll find a stronger inclination, a higher level of 'neighborliness' and civic engagement as a result of the economic downturn."

The group estimates that 33 percent of the nation attended a community meeting in the past year and that nearly 40 percent worked with others in their neighborhood to fix or improve something.

Keith N. Hampton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, runs a Web site for neighborhood groups with 50,000 members. He said communication on i-Neighbors.org is up 25 percent this spring over last, with talk about topics including vacant homes and starting community gardens.

"I don't think people will create silos and hide in houses to shield themselves from this," he said. "They're concerned about these issues, and they're going to look for people to help solve those problems. Those tend to be your neighbors."

Even in affluent Zip codes, there's more to talk about these days than whether the nearby golf course should go organic with its pesticides. And folks are getting creative: Wilson-Sogunro said one neighbor organized a tool-borrowing collective, another a summer jobs program for teenagers to spruce up the condominium grounds.

"It's more caring. . . . It's like we're a team," said Rob Burnett, 44, of Fredericksburg. Residents in his subdivision have planted trees, donated items to a neighbor with five children who lost his job, and formed a study group on debt-free living. "Before, everybody was showing off what they had. Now it's like, 'What can I cut back?' and 'How are you doing things differently?' Before, the guy who has the biggest Hummer on the street was the biggest guy in the world. That's gone."

On the fringes of Washington's suburbs, where subdivisions sprouted quickly in the early part of the decade, the paint was barely dry on the center-hall Colonials when the foreclosure crisis hit, buffeting communities trying to create a sense of place on what had just been dairy farms. Now the communities are welcoming a new wave of first-time home buyers and young families lured by rock-bottom prices and a new tax credit, many of whom paid far less for their homes (although this fact goes politely unmentioned at the block barbecue or ice cream social). In Prince William County, neighborhood leaders have begun assembling welcome packets to prepare for the influx.

Nursing student Mary Kimble, 31, didn't know what to expect when she and her husband bought a foreclosed home in the Victory Lakes subdivision in Bristow last year. She loved the house, with its dark wood floors and airy feel, but there were at least two other vacant properties on her block. Then she joined the neighborhood's still-thriving moms club and within days was inundated with more than 50 e-mails from other moms with play date invitations, pediatrician referrals, even instructions on where to find cheap diapers.

"I felt like I was already part of the neighborhood. I was moving to a place where I knew no one, yet I was immediately welcomed," she said. "It was really comforting."

When Kumaroo, 41, returned to live in the small Cape Cod where he was raised at the close of his career as a Navy SEAL in 2004, he found the area much changed from the peaceful blue-collar community he remembered as a boy. And it got worse as the economy tanked -- lots of foreclosures and an increase in robberies and thefts from automobiles.

Now that the Greater Glenmont Civic Association's crime watch is in place, thefts from cars have gone down. At the spring festival April 25, Kumaroo, in a tropical shirt, served as master of ceremonies. Residents stood on the lawn and plotted their next moves: a bid for more permit parking around the Metro, a knitting class for kids and an effort to pretty up the median strips.

Jerry Booher, 44, a plumber, manned the grill, chatting with a neighbor who lived five houses away whom he had not met -- in 13 years. Turns out they'd each been watching a nearby house for suspected drug activity. They compared notes.

Kumaroo stood nearby and surveyed the scene with satisfaction: Children played on swings and jumped on the moon bounce. Latino pop music poured out of the DJ speakers. Someone organized an impromptu game of musical chairs, and adults and children were playing, to shrieks of laughter.

"There's change happening in Glenmont," Kumaroo said. "All positive change."

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