In Praise of Neighbors

Lessons from childhood and graduate school: what moving to a new place has taught me about friendship, community, and interdependence.

When I was growing up, my family’s home—a white two-story structure just barely big enough for my parents and my five siblings (I slept on the porch)—was surrounded by the houses of neighbors. And no, that is not a tautology. Because there is a difference, I think a difference of kind and not just degree, between “people whose houses just happen to be located within a few hundred feet of your own” and “neighbors.”

We had neighbors. The family right next door were the closest to us, relationally as well as geographically; my dad and their dad had served in the Coast Guard together and settled in our hometown around the same time. There was no fence between our yards and we spent a lot of time running back and forth from one to the other. We worked in each others’ gardens and climbed each others’ trees and ate popsicles from each others’ freezers, and if someone (never me, of course) was being spanked in one house, there was at least a one-in-ten chance of that child actually belonging to the parents of the other house. The big boys in the neighbor family were sort of scary to a timid bookworm like me, but they adored my little sister (who, at two years old, was pretty much the cutest curly-haired thing toddling the planet) and would play very sweetly with her, like she was a living doll. Us kids, we were pretty happy with the situation; we had a bigger space to play and more people to play with, and if we grew weary of the snacks in our own kitchens, there were usually cookies or a peach cobbler on the counter in the other house.

It worked out well for our parents, too, I think. With eleven children total between the two families, it didn’t hurt to have an extra couple pairs of eyes on the kids, and they were able to trade child-care with great ease. If one mom needed to run to the store, the other mom was just in charge, and we all knew it (cf. “spanking,” above). I remember at one point—and now I’m revealing my age!—they set up an intercom system between the two houses that stayed on pretty much all day. You know, like walkie-talkies, except our mothers kept them in their kitchens. Handy for checking up on children, and calling people home for dinner, and asking to borrow a cup of sugar (not that my mother ever ran out of sugar)—that sort of thing.

Now, obviously, not all neighbors need to be this close. And our two families weren’t always that close–when I was still relatively young (middle school, I think), their dad got a job upstate and their family moved out of town, which was pretty sad. But we had functioning neighborly relationships with a lot of other families on our street. The kids were allowed to roam the block pretty freely; our parents could trust that we were safe in whichever house we happened to land in, so we just played and “checked in” every once in a while. And they had people they could count on to watch a sleeping baby if a bigger kid got sick and needed to be picked up from school, to lend a hand with major home improvement projects, and to be there, no question, if anything serious happened. It wasn’t perfect—we were all human beings, so there was gossip and drama and conflict (and I was a kid, which means I’m probably romanticizing it)—but it was pretty darn good.

Eventually, though, I left home (lo these many years ago…), and I haven’t really had neighbors since then. College is sort of an artificial neighborhood-like construct: lots of people to play with, and to help you decipher your Latin homework, but it’s all temporary, and everyone’s unsettled. In the city, you can have good roommates, but (at least in my experience) you only really encounter the people in the apartments surrounding yours when they’re making a ruckus at two o’clock in the morning.

And the problem with both college and the single urban life is that they teach you to think only about yourself. You eat dinner when you’re hungry, you go to bed when you’re tired, you grocery shop when you run out of milk, and your social life is a series of small- or large-group encounters that you enter and exit at your convenience and pleasure. Before too long, you’re pretty seriously convinced of your complete independence—which is both isolating and (because it’s actually false) potentially pathological when it comes to developing real relationships.

Earlier this month, though, I left the city and moved to central Texas to start a graduate program. A couple of other girls in my cohort and I are renting a house on a quiet side street. Our landlords, and their two adorable kids, live directly behind us. They happen to be professors in our department. They also happen to be particularly wonderful people. Which is good because, as it turns out, we need their help with stuff. All three of us are new to the area and the department, so we don’t know anything. In the past three weeks, we have had to ask for help navigating our new surroundings, identifying the good grocery stores and restaurants (no small task, in this particular town), and picking up our furniture (we drive Corollas; they have an SUV with a trailer).

For a newly transplanted yuppie, this process isn’t easy. It requires me to admit that I don’t know everything; it requires me to admit that I’m not completely self-sufficient. And, perhaps worst of all, it requires that I—oh, horror!!—knowingly cause other people inconvenience. That’s right, friends: having neighbors sometimes means asking them to go out of their way for you. Ouch.

But I will take it, gladly—painfully extracted admissions of finitude and all—because it’s so human. It’s hard to explicitly acknowledge that you can’t achieve the good life all on your own—but then again, when you put it that way, Aristotle sort of figured that out a while back, didn’t he? Our new neighbors have put forth a lot of time and energy to help us get settled; as time goes on, we hope and fully intend to put forth a lot of time and energy to help them, too. Already we help them with yard work, and their first-grader likes to come over and play in the kitchen with us, and they know they can call us if they need last-minute child-care. It is, and will continue to be, a two-way street—but not the kind with tollbooths on the ends. Because, while it entails reciprocity, it’s not a contractual agreement or a market exchange or a carefully tabulated quid pro quo. It’s a neighborhood.