When I returned to my San Lorenzo roots after being away for 15 years, I noticed that not much had changed in the old neighborhood.
Many of the parents whose children I had grown up with still lived on the block, and I cringed as they reminisced about the mischief my brothers and I (but mostly my brothers) once got into.
We knew no boundaries back then, and thought nothing of hopping over fences or running through back yards as a shortcut from one friend’s house to another. Everyone knew us, and we knew everyone.
Although neighborhoods like that still exist, many people have accustomed themselves to living on a street surrounded by strangers whose lives are entirely separate from their own.
Author Peter Lovenheim came to this realization when a murder-suicide took place in the suburban neighborhood he had grown up in and had returned to as an adult. Lovenheim couldn’t comprehend how a family on his street could have lived in such turmoil, without any of the neighbors noticing.
After the tragedy, he recognized that he didn’t even know who his neighbors were, and was determined to make a change. He decided that he would get to know his neighbors so well that he knew not only what they ate for breakfast, but what brand of toothpaste they used. To accomplish his plan he would do what he remembered doing countless times as a child; he would invite himself to their house for a sleepover.
Although this may sound crazy, is it any crazier than living next door to someone for years without ever knowing them?
At first his neighbors were reluctant—and who wouldn’t be—letting a total stranger spend the night at their house; but one by one, they opened their doors, their guest rooms and, finally, their hearts.
He then took things a step further and walked the daily route with the mail carrier. His mailman confided in him, "More than 90 percent of the time, customers would rather give misdirected mail back to me than walk it over to the person next door ... They don't want to get involved with their neighbors."
How long has it been since you chatted with your neighbors? Was it when the Loma Prieta earthquake drew you out in 1989, or when it snowed back in 1976?
It shouldn’t take a tragedy or a natural disaster to get us out of the confines of our homes and back onto our front porches.
To see a positive change and create a real sense of community, perhaps we could try, like Peter Lovenheim, to look outside the comfort of our own homes and get to know our neighbors. Let’s not just learn their names, but take it to a more meaningful level, and learn their brand of toothpaste.