Won’t you be my neighbor?

I don’t expect my neighborhood to be the land of make-believe. What matters to me is that it feels like a real place, a place I’m a part of and that I care about, a place that feels like home.

Mr Rogers Neighborhood

Oh who are the people in your neighborhood? . . .
The people that you meet each day. (Sesame Street)

When I was growing up in a development of modest ranch houses in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn’t know too many of the neighbors. My brother and I rode our bikes around the cul de sac and up and down the next street, but we didn’t go very far, because there was no sidewalk and no park. I played with some kids who rode my schoolbus, and I babysat for a few families, but I didn’t have any close friends whose houses I could walk to. My parents didn’t socialize with any of our neighbors, didn’t have cookouts with them or watch their kids.

We had friends. They just didn’t live around us. To me, “neighbor” meant simply a person who lived nearby, a person you might wave to or stop to chat with if something peculiar happened, if a tree fell down or teenagers rolled a yard with toilet paper. A neighbor was kind of like the mailman, somebody you saw frequently but didn’t invite into the house.

When my parents reminisced about their childhoods—talking about roving in wild bands of kids, running in and out of each others’ houses, playing and being fed by each others’ mothers (or, sometimes, maids)—it seemed foreign to me. Nice, but foreign. When they talked about walking to the store or to the post office, about the singular characters who made living in a small town more interesting, it sounded like something from books or television. Possible, but not quite real.

TV viewing was discouraged in our house, except “educational” shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I loved the Muppets and the animation, the trolley and King Friday, but I lapsed into bored impatience during the “real world” segments that showed everyday people doing everyday things. I would sit there with my warm Tang and dry Cheerios, waiting to be returned to the world of make-believe. Bring back the puppets! Bring back the colors! Sing a song!

Years later, watching these shows with my son, I found I enjoyed the “people” parts, where kids and grownups (and muppets) solved a problem together, or  Mr. Rogers interviewed some famous person about her job. I wanted my son to absorb their messages of tolerance, free expression, and love, all versions of one basic idea, that oldie but goodie: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Be yourself, but let other people be themselves, too. And let’s be ourselves together—because we’re neighbors, and neighbors love helping each other out.

As a kid, though, I never quite bought in. I just didn’t know my neighbors. There was family. There was school. There was church. But all those worlds were separate. And neighbors had nothing much to do with them.

Years ago, my age group was dubbed Generation X (or the MTV generation.) We were slackers. We weren’t supposed to care about anything or get anything done. And yet, against early warnings of our apathy, cynicism, and general lameness, we’ve turned out to be well educated, hard working, and deeply invested in our families. (Perhaps the best revenge latchkey children of divorced baby boomers could think up?)

Since 1987, the University of Michigan, with support from the National Science Foundation, has sponsored the Longitudinal Study of American Youth. It has surveyed 4,000 Gen Xers each year to find out all about our lives and habits. In Fall 2011, the study issued a report  titled “Active, Balanced, and Happy” (that’s us, y’all!).  It’s a fairly accurate and mostly unsurprising (to me, anyway) composite portrait of our generation, but I found it fun to read. I especially appreciate this confirmation of something I’ve been saying for a while: Despite media claims that the Internet and cellphones are making us unable to get along with other people in person, we use electronic information and communication to facilitate our social life, not replace it. Generation X is engaged in civic and religious organizations, and we get together a lot, which is impressive considering how exhausted are from working, exercising, and raising school-age children.

We might still dress like slackers, but we’re getting plenty done, thank you very much, and we’re having a pretty good time doing it. I like to think of us as the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. We want to be ourselves and express our individuality, but we strive to be thoughtful, loving friends, parents, and children to our aging parents. We also want to be good neighbors.

As an adult, I’ve lived in New York City and I’ve lived in a one-stoplight town. There were good things about both. But it wasn’t until I returned to my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina (pop. 269,666 as of 2010), that I really learned what a neighborhood could be. Lindley Park is close to UNC Greensboro and downtown. Most of the houses, built between the 1920s and the 1950s, are small by today’s standards. If you can find a house that already has two bathrooms, it’s considered a major score. Front yards are small and mostly lined with sidewalks. It’s a place where my son can walk to school and play with his buddies at the end of the day without having to be driven across town. Where we go out to walk the dog and end up grilling and drinking beer in somebody’s yard. Where the neighbors give us lettuce from their gardens and take care of our dogs when we’re away. Where our friends bring food every night when we’ve had trouble or a death in the family.

Once I opened my front door and found that a neighbor had left a homemade pie on the porch for us. No reason. Just being friendly.

A PIE. On. Our. Porch.

We have parks and playgrounds we can walk to. There are great restaurants and bars, churches, a laundromat with pool tables, a barber shop, a bakery, and two used bookstores. We can go hear live music, have our bikes repaired, buy flowers. We can vote at the neighborhood recreation center.

Our small grocery store, the Bestway, carries milk and ice cream from a local dairy, as well as locally made bread and Mexican popsicles. Most amazing of all is what we refer to as the Wall of Beer, featuring what has to be the best selection for miles.

Our neighborhood isn’t perfect. The neighborhood association often has to fight developers to protect us from poorly conceived building ideas. Occasionally, there are break-ins and assaults. Last year, somebody committed suicide on his porch, across the street from the elementary school, during school hours. (No students were outside at the time.) This year, a disturbed neighbor was engaged for hours in a standoff with the police.

Those weren’t the neighbors shown on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, but I don’t expect my neighborhood to be the land of make-believe. What matters to me is that it feels like a real place, a place I’m a part of and that I care about, a place that feels like home.

Who are the people that I meet each day? Well, they are parents, grandparents, kids. They are single, partnered, married. They are public school teachers, plumbers and pilots, doulas and massage therapists, professors and college students. They are drug dealers and conspiracy theorists. They are waiters, firemen, veterinarians, writers, physicians’ assistants, social workers, college students, business owners. They are quilters, cyclists, gardeners, and musicians.

I don’t know them all, but I know a lot of them pretty well. Many of them I met out walking on the street or at the playground or having drinks down at the corner. I know their kids. I know their dogs. Every day, in different ways, they say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And I say, yes. Yes, I will.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor video (PBS.org)

Comments (2) Add yours ↓
  1. Pam McRae

    This gave me goose bumps, Julia. First of all, it’s beautifully written. But mostly I love the description you give of our neighborhood. I feel exactly the same way. Living here, close to my daughter’s family and many of her friends, is pretty close to heaven for me. I’m kind of reserved, and I don’t throw big dinner parties more than about once every couple of years or so, but I enjoy knowing my neighbors and their kids, and I like feeling that I’m in the midst of something healthy and even beautiful. We in Lindley Park pride ourselves on our friendliness and our tolerant attitudes. I feel so fortunate to have ended up here.–pam

    June 15, 2012 Reply
    • Julia Smith

      Thanks for commenting, Pam. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. We are fortunate indeed to have this warm-hearted place to call home.

      June 16, 2012 Reply

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