Title: In the Neighborhood – The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time
My rating: 5/5
Journalist and author Peter Lovenheim has lived on the same street in suburban Rochester, NY, most of his life. But it was only after a brutal murder-suicide rocked the community that he was struck by a fact of modern life in this comfortable enclave: no one knew anyone else.
Thus begins Peter’s search to meet and get to know his neighbors. An inquisitive person, he does more than just introduce himself. He asks, ever so politely, if he can sleep over.
In this smart, engaging, and deeply felt book, Lovenheim takes readers inside the homes, minds, and hearts of his neighbors and asks a thought-provoking question: do neighborhoods matter-and is something lost when we live among strangers?
“There’s talk today about how as a society we’ve become fragmented by income, ethnicity, city versus suburb, red state versus blue. But we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines. I’m talking about the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closes to: our neighbors” (Lovenheim xv)
This book has been sitting on my shelf for yeeaarrss, but I am fortunate to have read it where I am in life now than when I originally bought it. There is a maturity needed to fully comprehend the power of the simple concept of a neighborhood in which Peter Lovenheim has conveyed brilliantly. I was recently talking with a colleague who is responsible for creating community with college students living off-campus in apartment complexes. We discussed how challenging that has been for students to interact with their neighbors and sometimes their own roommates! Reflecting on this memoir, I see that it is not just a college problem, as Lovenheim illustrates in a neighborhood of 36 houses. Thinking back to my own upbringing, it was normal to go over a neighbor’s house if my parents weren’t home after school. It was expected that the high school-aged kids were house or babysitting. I have also been rewatching the show Desperate Housewives and it is astonishing to me how not like current neighbor experiences are like. If not familiar, the show is about 4 housewives living on Wisteria Lane who are quite involved in each others’ lives!
The portraits Loveheim crafts are poignant and raw, reminding us that we never know what is happening behind closed doors. However, imagine if we did, and we can offer that much support, kindness, and empathy to those who are around us more than friends and family (for the most part). Loveheim provided a summary of a research study conducted for the U.S. census. It showed that “22 percent of the homes and 38 percent of the apartments in the country are occupied by just one person. That works out to nearly 30 million people living alone, a higher number than ever before recorded…So if there was ever a good time to break down the barriers that separate us from our neighbors and instead take advantage of the potential for companionship close at hand, that time is now” (Lovenheim 236). To offset this issue, many resources and groups have been brought together such as MeetTheNeighbors.org. It “serves all kinds of neighborhoods, but as suggested by its welcome page…it’s mostly aimed at apartment dwellers in big cities. ‘Our whole point is to connect people who are already physically next to each other…People in apartment buildings can go years without getting to know even the people on the other side of the wall'” (Lovenheim 159).
An interesting point was made from the neighborhood mailman, Ralph. He said “(t)hing is, the more affluent people are, the more protective they are. They don’t want to get involved with their neighbors, and they don’t want to take mail over because it’s seen as an invasion of privacy both ways: you don’t want your mail seen, and you don’t want to let your neighbor know you’ve seen your mail. Also, they just don’t want to have to engage in a conversation that maybe they don’t want to have” (Lovenheim 196-7). On my way to the community gym one Sunday afternoon, I came across a mom and her baby and then a young man. I walked in their direction, all smiles, ready to say hello and then was disappointed when they hurried past with no eye contact. That definitely deflated my confidence in the moment, but who knows, maybe they wanted a connection too?
This unexpected gem has given me a lot to ponder, as it seems as relevant today as it did in 2010 when Peter began his sleepovers in the neighborhood.