Book review of "In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time" by Peter Lovenheim

in the neighborhood
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jennifer Howard
Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover

at a Time

By Peter Lovenheim


238 pp. $25.95

They steal your copy of the Sunday paper. They hate the color you painted your fence. They nag you to cut your lawn -- and then let their dogs and their kids trample your grass.

They're your neighbors, and they can make your life a living hell. They can also be sources of help, friendship and real-time community. Too often, though, as Peter Lovenheim's "In the Neighborhood" makes clear, many people in this country do not know their neighbors well enough to complain about them by name, much less to give or get a helping hand. It's hard to borrow a cup of sugar on Facebook.

It took a tragedy to shock Lovenheim into recognizing how little community remained in his well-to-do Rochester, N.Y., suburb. Out walking his dog one evening in February 2000, he saw TV news trucks parked down the block. A neighbor three doors down had shot and killed his wife and then himself. "Their two young children had run screaming into the night," Lovenheim writes.

Lovenheim and his wife and children had known the family only slightly, not enough to sense trouble coming. Soon a "For Sale" sign in front of the murder house was the only evidence of a tear in the social fabric. "A family had vanished, yet the impact on our neighborhood was slight," Lovenheim writes. "How could that be? Did I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate?"

To answer those questions, he decided to do what any normal American suburbanite would do: ask his neighbors if he could sleep over at their houses to get to know them better. A surprising number said yes. "In the Neighborhood" is the result.

What the book lacks in drama -- murder-suicide excepted -- it makes up for in a disarmingly straightforward approach to its subject. Lovenheim finds that his neighbors have very little to hide. He uncovers no signs of drug or child abuse, no sexual peccadilloes, no criminal rings, just folks trying to live their lives as best they can. What's remarkable is how seldom those lives intersect. A wave in the morning is about as close as these neighbors get to knowing one another. This is not a place where people mind each other's kids or chat away a warm evening on the front stoop.

Chilly as the place seems, Lovenheim has a special investment in it. He grew up on the street, moved to another part of Rochester, then moved back into his childhood home when his parents wanted to downsize. There's a poignancy to the image of the grown-up Lovenheim, overnight bag in hand and now separated from his wife, trundling over to the house next door where he played as a child.

The owner of that house, 81-year-old Lou Guzzetta, is a retired surgeon, a widower whose limited routines -- breakfast, workout at the Y, home for lunch, nap, TV stock-market report and afternoon gin -- do not match his outsize personality. Guzzetta is by far the most appealing character in the book, a living memento of a time when people talked a lot with their hands. He lends his overnight guest a nightshirt, which Lovenheim dutifully wears even though it's far too big. Guzzetta explains that he buys extra-large clothes because of his stomach: " 'La Bonza! The abdomen. The curse of the American male. We all get this goddamn La Bonza!' I said, 'It comes with age.' He said, 'No, it comes with eating.' "

Unfortunately for the neighborhood and for readers of this get-to-know-your-neighbors tale, the younger residents of Lovenheim's street can't hold a candle to Guzzetta. Absorbed in their houses and careers, they lack the ex-surgeon's gruff charm and the aura of an earlier, more colorful era that clings to him. Lovenheim discovers most of his neighbors pursuing existences that, if not quite desperate, sound more hectic than full. Americans overschedule themselves from cradle to grave, but being busy is no substitute for an engaged and meaningful life.

If Lovenheim were more of a sociologist or philosopher, he'd have done more than mention Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" as a way of diagnosing what's gone wrong in our neighborhoods and, by extension, in our lives. Is it really just that we don't know each other? Lovenheim relies too much on homespun observations to fill the sociological gaps. For instance, musing on how isolated Guzzetta remained despite his gestures such as taking dinner to new neighbors, Lovenheim gives in to flimsy folksiness: "Seems like in the most primitive cultures the medicine man would be revered right up until the day he died. But here, amid this affluence, our medicine man can't even get invited for a beer in return for a fish fry."

Still, Lovenheim does his modest best to create neighborly bonds where none existed, with quiet but real results. When one neighbor, a single mother, is dying of breast cancer, Lovenheim and Guzzetta do what they can to help her keep things together as long as possible. They help her get to doctors' appointments and the grocery store. Guzzetta notices she needs a light installed over a dangerously dark staircase. Lovenheim meets her daughter at the bus stop after school once a week or so. What they accomplish is not dramatic, but it does help.

And so, Lovenheim suggests, can we all. "All we need to do," he writes, "is deliberately set out to know the person next door, or across the street, or down the block; to ring the bell and open the door." Don't wait until you see your neighbors on the evening news to get to know them.

Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her fiction has appeared in the Collagist, the collection "D.C. Noir" and elsewhere.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company