05 August 2009

Neighborhood people

Last fall, I read an article in Key, the NY Times Real Estate Magazine called “It’s a Wonderful Block” (Fall 2008) about how some neighborhoods and streets just ‘work’. In that article, Mark Oppenheimer described a great block as a ‘delicate ecology, consisting of elements in perpetual flux.’ That characterization has really stuck with me, as I've thought about what makes my particular neighborhood block work, and I thought about flux again last night, after my neighborhood enjoyed its annual Blockwatch Night Out for Crime potluck.

I happen to live on a wonderful Seattle street, which had an established blockwatch program when I moved here in 1996. I and another neighbor now share the blockwatch captain duties, which means we maintain the neighborhood map and contact list. We all know who lives in every single house, along one block, on both sides of the street including the corners: that's over 20 households! I take my responsibility seriously, sending or forwarding neighbors regular emails about crime reports or incidents, but looking at the content of many of my neighborhood messages over the years, it's clear that although the neighborhood came together in order to fight residential crime, we also stay connected for practical and social reasons. We've come together over the issue of traffic safety, by organizing the acquisition of a traffic circle to slow traffic on one of the perpendicular streets, and we regularly call the city to fill the potholes that inevitably appear on our street or intersections. We pass on news about new farmer's markets or garage sales. We also share rides or walk to school in groups, we pick groceries up for each other, occasionally share meals, and we have neighborhood happy hours and craft nights and even bipartisan election night get-togethers. Ultimately, our neighborhood, our street, satisfies a social need in many of us, a need to be connected. This is particularly so, in a highly-mobile society like ours, where extended families aren't exactly next door, to share practical assistance and offer social continuity. For many of us, our neighbors are the people we see regularly, the people we rely on, and the people who help give our daily existence purpose and social meaning.

In fact, President Obama invoked this same idea in January this year when he told the dance crowd at his first inaugural ball stop that he and his wife Michele are 'neighborhood people', and that was why they wanted to have and attend a D.C. neighborhood people's ball because D.C. was their new neighborhood. For Obama, being in Chicago and now in D.C., means he has been far from his familial roots, so being a neighborhood person is what has helped keep him socially connected to his community and given his life meaning.

So, what about the 'perpetual flux' of a great block? That simply means that the nature of our neighborhood connections, however rich they may be at a given time, are constantly evolving. The Night Out potluck I enjoyed with my neighbors last night really showed how change is the only constant factor in neighborhood life. For example, one elderly neighbor, Phyllis, is no longer living on our block, and we always counted on her to bring baked beans, as we might count on someone else to bring the pasta salad or the brownies. In fact, several other neighbors have moved on or passed on since I've lived here. And of the neighbors present, we're older and so are some of our kids. In years past, the bulk of the 20+ kids on the street have traditionally decorated their bicycles elaborately for a bike parade from corner to corner and have spent the 3 hours of the potluck playing in the closed street since the closure happens just once a year. This year many of the children have grown up enough not to want to decorate their bikes or even ride them all evening on the closed street. Actually some of these kids have gone or are going to college now, while an smaller, emerging younger set is still too young to ride! We must have sensed this change, as we've moved to showing an outdoor movie on a neighbor's front lawn.

Change... people move, age, and social connections shift. Indeed, our neighborhood is deep into its renaissance; when I first moved in, my elderly neighbor, Clint, shared with me how in the 1950's and 1960's, this street was very lively, with young children and families socializing, like we do now. He even had a party room and wet bar in his basement! But, the character of the street changed by the 80's, as the demographic shifted, and as it will again. I think my old neighbor Clint would be surprised by the ubiquity of email correspondence connecting neighbors on the block. It just goes to show that we don't stop seeking social connections--some of us really are neighborhood people. But, how we seek those connections, and who seeks those connections are indeed constantly in flux, as we should expect in any great neighborhood!