Growing Neighborhoods One Meal at a Time
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
Something very interesting is going on as we invent the America of the future. We have more Face book "friends", and are less acquainted with our neighbors. Futurists do not view this as a positive trend.
If your house was on fire, and your phone was in the burning building, and you needed to quickly call the fire department, or park your child for a few moments, where would you turn? Chances are it would be the nearest neighbor. Are you going away and want your mail box emptied and newspapers picked up? Again, likely involve your neighbor.
Since these exchanges involve precious kids, or perhaps personal communications from your bank or doctor, you would tend to turn to someone you trust, right? When you do this, you are accessing what the academics call your "Social Network". These same academics tell us that our nation's social networks are declining. i According to several surveys, in 1985 about three quarters of respondents said they had a friend they could confide in. By 2004, that number dropped to about halfii. In 2009, The Pew Research Center found that fully one quarter of all surveyed could not name a single neighbor!iii
Turns out the single biggest factor in knowing your neighbors is the presence of kids in the neighborhood. This brings folks together for everything from street ball games to hollering about broken windows, baby-sitting and studying the teen-agers to see who is courting whomiv. This in turn leads to a safer society . One Harvard study found that crime is reduced more by raising the percentage of citizens knowing their neighbors first name by 10% than adding 10% more cops to the beatv. If there are not kids, you have to work harder to create society.
In the past few years, our family, like yours, has suffered loss of parents and family members, celebrated children's career success, and sweated through final exams with the younger ones. And, like many, our family is spread all over America. So we have strong electronic links to those near and dear to us. But in our mobile society, friendships get left behind, at a cost to everyone.
Turns out that you live longer, healthier lives if you have a strong social network of family and friends. This cancels out some of the impact of health risk factors like unhealthy diet, alcohol use, and other things that the doctors frown on. Called the "Roseto Effect" , this finding resulted from public health authorities trying to understand why citizens of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, lived so much longer than citizens of other similar nearby towns. After decades of study of physical factors like quality of water supplies, diet, smoking habits and the like, the answer turned out to be the strength of the society - everybody knew lots of people by their first name!vi This lowered stress, nourished the psyche, and created opportunity for communal exercise like neighborhood ball games.
As we enter this one time of the year when kids are out of school, folks have a few days off, and the daily quota of hugs is allowed to increase, we can seize the moment!
Take the initiative and invite your neighbors in for fruitcake or eggnog. Go to those you wave at but don't really know, and suggest that they drop in to celebrate the season, and get to know one another. The words "we would like to get to know you better" may be the best Christmas gift they get! A few minutes over fruitcake or a simple meal together will allow all parties to reveal their joys, hopes, the pride they have in their children. A few such events, and you will live together in a neighborhood, and not just on a street.
One useful tool to help you with this is National Night out. This amazing computer program starts by asking your address, and in a few keystrokes displays a map of your neighborhood with the names of your neighbors. Simply go to http://neighbors.whitepages.com/, and click on the tab "Addresses and Neighbors". Type in your address. You will be thrilled to see your neighbors names, address, and telephone numbers (makes doing those Christmas cars so much easier!).
So here is my gift to you. We hear a lot about gifts that keep on giving. You can enrich the lives of both the giver (that would be you) and the recipient (your vaguely known neighbor), create a safer society, and help both of you live longer. Reach out - for everyone's sake. It will make a better future for all.
ii The Washington Post, June 23, 2006 Shankar Vedantam