I spent much of my childhood in the Willy Street neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. This neighborhood boasted a diverse mix of hippies, blue-collar folk, academics, eccentrics, motorcycle gangs, and, in my teenage years, crackheads. Old folks, young folks, white folks, black folks, all along the economic continuum. All of these people were on display at the annual Willy Street Fair, when multiple blocks were shut down to traffic and everybody came out to play, sing, dance, and eat.
Not to be too polyannaish about it, but it was a great community to grow up in. Neighbors knew each other, watched out for each other. There were some mainstay businesses that served as gathering places: The Willy Bear, Mother’s Pub, The Willy Street Co-op, The Eagles Club. And, of course, BB Clark Beach on Lake Monona, where throngs of people of all shapes and sizes gathered in the summer to picnic and jump off the floating diving board. I left Madison for the wider world at 18, and I lamented that I would never find a place with such a sense of community.
When I began this article, way back a couple paragraphs ago, I had it in mind that this would be the place where I would disparage Americans for not being good neighbors, for not having much of a sense of community. But then when I did a little googling on the topic, I found that things may be better than I thought. About half of Americans know most or all of their neighbors by name. In fact, about 2/3 of Americans like their neighbors. I was really going to lay into those suburban ‘hoods that don’t appeal to me, but it turns out suburbanites are even more likely to know and like their neighbors. Damn these surveys, they’re ruining the drama of my post. Ahh, but such are the perils of trusting anecdotalism. Well, I guess the unfolding of this post is a little less important than the overall sense of community in the U.S. – kudos to you, fellow Americans, maybe getting the lead out of our gasoline has made us all come together. Still, we could certainly further improve upon our sense of community.
As it turns out, I’ve been fortunate to live in a number of good communities: Bellingham, Washington; Utrecht in the Netherlands; Boulder (as transient and transcendental as it is); and now Longmont, Colorado. As I wrote that last sentence, I received a text from a teacher at my kids’ school asking if my surgery went well. If you recall from my RPP post, I recently suffered a knee injury – well, it turns out I needed a scope and now I’ll be on crutches for a few weeks (much more on how I navigated our health care system in a future post). Now I have neighbors and friends bringing me soup, crutches, cupcakes, and, best of all, that manna from heaven, beer. I’m feeling the love, and it makes me appreciate my neighborhood even more.
Once, we came back from playing at the park, only to discover that someone had been in our house – there was a bottle of whiskey sitting on our counter. See, people break into our house to leave us wonderful things.* Another night, a winged, foam pig landed on our porch laden with beer and other treats – we passed it on with new treats. In fact, beer seems to be a common currency around here. I do some chainsawing for a neighbor, she gives me beer. A neighbor gives me an old Schwinn bike, I give him beer. A friend helps me remodel my house and I give him, well, money (it was a lot of work)… and beer!
Aristotle said, “we should return our services to one who has done us a favor, and at another time take the initiative in doing him a favor.” Little did he know, we are genetically hardwired to be a cooperative animal. The Ultimatum Game starts with a sum of goods, which one player proposes to divide. A second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the second player rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. If we had no sense of honor or fairness, we would always accept any offer greater than nothing, no matter how proportionally small. But we generally reject offers less than 20% – we would rather suffer the fate of receiving nothing while teaching that asshole a lesson than taking an unfair offer and losing dignity (maybe more one than the other).
In the real world, there are generally more complex ramifications for an unfair proposer than those in the Ultimatum Game. The guy who never helps out at the barn raising is censured by the community. The guy who always puts in a herculean effort is lionized.
I know my neighbors, and I like my neighbors (to varying degrees). A big part of this is due to one neighbor in particular, Grace, who started Porch Club before we moved to this block. Porch Club rotates from neighbor to neighbor on Friday nights on our block in the summer. Anyone and everyone is welcome, and it’s BYOD. In this way we’ve gotten to know almost everyone on our block, from various and sundry backgrounds, and we like them all (even, gasp, Republicans!).
So go out and meet your neighbors, maybe start a Porch Club of your own, or do a barn raising. Who knows, you may even get free beer out of the deal. For more ideas on how to be neighborly, read this post on The Art of Manliness blog. And leave comments on the things you do to improve your neighborhood.
*Not that bad things never happen in our ‘hood, but I believe more neighborliness makes these events happen less.