OPINION: How to be a good neighbor (and how not to be)

Do good fences make good neighbors? Try opening your gate to others. Courtesy of Belinda Hall

Credit: Belinda Hall

Credit: Belinda Hall

Do good fences make good neighbors? Try opening your gate to others. Courtesy of Belinda Hall

The first time her neighbor parked in front of her mailbox over the summer, Catherine Brown introduced herself and politely asked him to move his car.

She explained that she had gone to mail a letter but couldn’t squeeze into the sliver of space between his truck and the front of her mailbox. The new neighbor agreed to move the truck, and Brown thought that was the end of that.

But, a month later, the truck was there again, pressed so tightly to the curb that she could not retrieve her mail and the mail carrier couldn’t pull up to the box. This time, her husband asked the neighbor to move his vehicle, and he did.

Twice more, the same thing happened. Twice more, a request was made: “Please, don’t park in front of the mailbox.”

Finally, Brown tired of being nice.

Having discovered a federal law that prohibits blocking mailboxes, Brown pledged to call the police if it happened again.

This is when you know your relationship with your neighbor has gone bad. And Brown is far from alone in finding herself in that situation.

Americans just aren’t as neighborly as they used to be. Only about a quarter of us know most of people living around us, according a Pew Research Center survey. So it’s not surprising that the share of people who socialize with a neighbor several times a month fell from 44% in 1974 to 28% in 2018.

Socializing with neighbors may not be a high priority, but not doing so can also have an impact on our lives.

Surveys suggest that, as interactions with neighbors have declined, so has social trust. More people are cynical. More people think others can’t be relied on.

Experts cite many reasons for the perceived decline in neighborliness. Busy lives. Transient lifestyles. Technology that connects us to friends wherever they are, meaning we no longer have to rely on those immediately around us for social engagement.

For one glorious moment in life in my mid-20s, when I lived in Chicago, my two oldest friends were also my neighbors. I absolutely instigated this situation. My community was great, and rents were reasonable. I sold it as being a good deal for them, and it was. But I also really liked the idea of having my closest friends right there.

Situations like that don’t happen too often. For many of us, there is a difference between friends and neighbors. We find ourselves waving over the fence or from across the street and generally not engaging beyond the usual niceties.

The decline of community in America has been documented for decades. Participation in civic clubs and public meetings has decreased. People are eschewing organized religion. We are also less likely to gather at block parties, dinner parties and similar events.

Yet, these are the kinds of connections most people crave. Just saying hello to neighbors can enhance well-being, according to a recent study from Gallup, particularly for those who are middle age or older.

So, how do we bring neighborly behavior back to our neighborhoods?

In some cases, that may mean just striking up a conversation or, in the case of Brown’s neighbor, it may mean showing an act of goodwill. Like making sure you don’t park in front of your neighbor’s mailbox, over and over again, until a small issue becomes a major source of resentment.

But as with any relationship, really building bonds with neighbors means being vulnerable.

Welcome new neighbors when they move in. Invite neighbors to your house to socialize.

My immediate neighbors on either side became my friends almost as soon as I moved in six years ago. They greeted me and my daughter with flowers and cakes to welcome us. Just a few months later, when Hurricane Irma dropped a tree on my car, they were there to help.

One of those neighbors recently hosted a birthday party and invited the entire block. She put invitations in the mailboxes of the folks she didn’t know, a low-pressure way to invite strangers into your life. She willingly took on the role of connector, bringing people together in her home as a way to break the ice for all of us. And she was masterful at introducing people who didn’t know each other and offering a connection point for them to engage in conversation.

The effort seems to have paid off. I recently received an invitation to a holiday party from another neighbor.

Every neighbor may not become a friend, but it’s worth it to establish a connection that you can build on.

Even Brown and her neighbor seem to have had a breakthrough.

She said during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a different vehicle was parked in front of her mailbox. This time, it was someone visiting the neighbor’s house.

She kept her cool. About an hour later, she peered outside again. To her surprise, the driver, presumably prompted by the neighbor, had moved the car to another parking spot down the street.

This could be the start of a new, neighborly relationship.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.