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When Neighbors Don't Talk to One Another

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What does it take to make a good neighborhood? Without question, the answer is communication and openness.

While they say that “good fences” make good neighbors, what about the opposite of that? Do fences that are too high make for indifferent neighbors? Do high fences make for neighbors who never communicate, or isolate themselves and never get to know a single person on the block? Is this a good thing?

Granted, we all value privacy, but can there be liabilities in a world of excess privacy?

I’m thinking especially of a nice couple who moved from our block this year to a new home in New England. Fred and Betty moved here a few years before I did in 2009, but circumstances prevented us from getting to know one another until a few years ago. For five years we said nothing to one another although their house was very close to my house. In those days I never received so much as a wave or a “Good morning” from Fred or Betty. Even eye contact was minimal. I was politely ignored for no specific reason other than the fact that they didn’t seem interested in getting to know anyone on the block.

The fact that Fred and Betty seemed to have a little more money than most people here, plus three new cars and a much larger house, may have had played a part in this. Sometimes people make assumptions about others because of economic factors. We have all met people who assume that because someone doesn’t own a car or make a lot of money they can’t possibly be considered successful. I’m not saying that Fred and Betty thought this way; they probably just didn’t like people very much.

Later, when I got to know Fred and Betty, we’d have dinner together and I’d invite them to parties at my house. Throughout this high contact cycle, I continued to get the impression that they were still unhappy with the neighborhood. While no neighborhood is perfect, to exaggerate a street’s imperfections so that those “reasons” become an excuse for self-imposed isolation is never a healthy thing.

Fred and Betty were always against the idea of block parties, a stance I could never quite understand even if so many block parties tend to be tacky affairs with loud (usually bad) music, burnt hot dogs, kiddie trampolines and ear-splitting karaoke. But ‘tacky,” in my book, can be as much fun as going to a B-movie. It’s also a chance to chat with neighbors.

Fred and Betty’s extreme isolation from everybody in the neighborhood was tested when one of their cats disappeared. Understandably, they were devastated. Together they walked the neighborhood looking for the lost kitty. The direness of the situation forced them to speak with neighbors they had never spoken to before. They were being forced to open up because they needed help. “Did you see our cat?” they’d ask, as some neighbors replied, “Who are you? You live— where?” When Fred and Betty needed the neighborhood, they expected everybody to jump. Whether they got that response I cannot be sure although I am certain that that incident opened a window for them: this was the realization that nobody, not even a couple, is an island, that neighbors need neighbors and that people on the same block should talk to one another once in a while.

One of the nice things about Philly neighborhoods is that people do talk to one another, unlike the situation in Center City Philadelphia, where residents of apartment buildings can go years without knowing anything about their neighbors except what can be gained during one-minute or less elevator rides. There are hermits in the Egyptian desert who feel less lonely than many people who live in mid-city apartment buildings.

People come up with a lot of reasons as to why they cannot get to know their neighbors:

They’re not my kind of people; they’re foreign, uppity, low class, high class, weird, dirty, not in my league, I don’t like their friends, etc. When the first wave of gentrification hit my neighborhood of Fishtown not long ago, there were complaints from indigenous locals that the out-of-town gentrification folks who were moving in and rehabbing houses built walls around themselves and not only wouldn’t talk but wouldn’t make eye contact with them either. Resentment built like funeral pyres in India because of this attitude. “They think they are better than we are,” one guy told me then. “When I say hello to them when they walk their dogs, they just stare past me into space.” (These are the people, it should be noted, who all voted for Hilary Clinton).

This is no way to build community. While there may be a sense of suburban comfort in hibernating in your own space and never mixing with neighbors, the downside occurs when it comes to emergencies like a lost cat or keeping criminals away. Criminals are more likely to come in if they know that the residents on a certain street are disinterested in their neighbors.

When Fred and Betty moved to New England last month, I visited them before they left to say good-bye. During our visit, I could see a look of worry on their faces. Moving is a difficult task and the strain was showing. I tried to buoy their mood by remarking, “Well, just think of this move as an adventure, as a Jack Kerouac road trip… think of the new friends you will meet in your new place.”

At this, Fred shrugged. “Oh yeah, just like the friends we made on this block.”

Bingo!

I didn’t say a word, although my mind raced back to my first few years here when Fred and Betty opted to remain strangers, and how it took a cat emergency to open the doors of communication.

On the day of Fred and Betty’s move, I watched as the van emptied their house over the course of many hours. The house stood empty until the following day when the new buyers came on the scene, inspiring a super friendly local to go over and say hello.

But the neighborly introduction didn’t seem to have much of an effect. I may be all wet, but it seemed to me that the new folks weren’t all that interested.