Last week, I found myself raking freshly fallen leaves in front of my house. After several years of living in various apartments around the country, this has been the first time in many years I’ve done lawn work. However, within a few hours, I was outside raking leaves, I had the opportunity to talk with several neighbors who were passing by. While my wife has lived in our house for over two years and knows many people on the street, I’m still in the process of getting to know my new neighbors. But while my conversations with my neighbors about the tedious task of lawn care or the changing weather was simplistic, I’m discovering there is something more here than the simple small talk I have with those living next to me.
For my millennial counterparts, many of us grew up watching sitcoms such as “Full House” where next-door neighbor Kimmie Gimbler always dropped into the Tanner family house unannounced or how Mr. Wilson from “Home Improvement” was always on the other side of the white picket fence to give life wisdom when Taylor family members needed it the most. And while many of us had next-door neighbors growing up who were like our second parents and had children our age, many of us have lost that sense of community with those living near us as we’ve moved due to changing jobs or growing families.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 57% of Americans report they know some of their neighbors and far fewer (26%) say they know most of them.
While frequent moving and long work hours are the reason that I and many of my counterparts fail to interact with our neighbors compared to previous generations, there are also social divisions that have led to the picket fence growing a little higher between us and those living next door.
A report by City Observatory published by The Cut, shared that Americans are now less likely than forty years ago to socialize regularly with their neighbors nowadays. One reason is the division between neighborhoods and income. The other reasons are because of people moving further out from established communities, increased commute times, and the declining use of public spaces such as libraries and public pools.
Additionally, political affiliation and religious affiliation have led to an increase in the division not just in our country, but even with our own neighbors. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that people on both the political right and left are more likely to say it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views. And finally, according to the City Observer, technology and social media have driven us away from building relationships with neighbors as we seek to find community elsewhere and with those who may not live even remotely close to us.
However, even though we may know less about our neighbors than previous generations, there are some amazing benefits to getting to know those who live around us, beyond the practicality of knowing who you can borrow a rake or snow shovel from in case you need it.
The first is being able to share information and look out for one another. Recently, I met a patient at the hospital where I work who was recovering from a broken hip after falling while taking the garbage out one night. The patient, an elderly woman in her 80s, had said she wasn’t able to get to the phone when she fell. However, after noticing her garage door was open while it was dark, a worried neighbor came over to check on her and discovered she had fallen. If it wasn’t for her neighbor noticing unusual behavior, she believed that it could have been days before anyone would have found her.
Another advantage of getting to know your neighbors is that it helps break down divisions between individuals in a community. While more than likely not everyone on your street will share your political, religious, or cultural views, spending time with neighbors who are receptive to spending time with you—despite your political culture, religious, or even generational differences—allows you to see each other on the level of basic human connection.
From sharing information relating to things happening in your community to having someone keep an eye out for any unusual behavior, neighbors can support each other not just with practicality such as security or extra help feeding your cat while you’re gone but can make each another feel less isolated. This is the biggest advantage, especially if you don’t have family or friends living nearby.
One of my grandfather’s neighbors was a woman named Doris who lived in the home beside him. Shortly after my grandmother died, my grandfather lived by himself for a few years. While my grandfather wasn’t really social, he had formed a friendship with Doris. As someone who lived alone as well, having someone to talk to give both of them someone to communicate with besides family, allowing them to feel less isolated. And when 46% of Americans admit to feeling isolated, forming relationships with our neighbors helps us find companionship in ways we least expect it.
For those who are new to a neighborhood or those who’ve been part of a neighborhood for some time and wish to build community, there are various resources such as this article from Mashup that provide ways for families to get to know their neighbors. Additionally, websites like NextDoor.com provide information not just related to what’s happening in communities but allow individuals to get to know their neighbors.
There certainly is a lot of practicality in getting to know your neighbors beyond safety and having someone check your mail when you’re out of town. For those who are isolated from family, inviting your neighbor to spend a holiday dinner with you or simply inviting them to a summer backyard barbecue helps individuals feel a sense of belonging. And it’s these simple gestures which can bring meaning and healing to others in ways we cannot comprehend.
As Mr. Rogers, America’s favorite neighbor once said, “The more we can be in a relationship with those who might seem strange to us, the more we can feel like we’re neighbors and all members of the human family.”