On Being Neighborly

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Between college and graduate school I took a gap year where I worked in a restaurant, snow skied every chance I got, and tried to figure out the rest of my life. During that year I lived in a big old suburban house near the lake along with five to eight other guys and sometimes one girl, depending on which month it was.

We had a lot of fun that year. Our driveway was filled with sports cars and motorcycles. We barbecued most meals and played music with the volume set to eleven. At night we climbed onto the roof and smoked cigars, dreaming of our futures. Occasionally we shot off firecrackers, just for the sake of sounding our barbaric YAWP.

One night we were shooting bottle rockets from an upstairs window when a loud knock sounded on the front door. It was our neighbor from across the street, and, boy, was he ticked. His roof was made of cedar shakes, he explained, and he was worried one of our stray bottle rockets would burn his house down. Would we – please! – knock it off.

Sure, sure, we said, and curtailed the activity for the night. We were polite enough to his face. But after he left we agreed among ourselves that our neighbor was only a worried fuddy duddy who’s greatest interest in life was spoiling our good time.

Fast forward twenty years.

I have become that neighbor, in many ways. If a gang of young ruffian renters moved in across the street and fired bottle rockets toward my house, I’d certainly go over and politely ask them to knock it off.

Something changes between the days of being a guy and the days of being a man. When it comes to where he lives, an immature man tends to see his neighborhood only as a place to hang his hat. But a mature man sees his neighborhood as a place he helps create.

It’s in every man’s best interest to live in the best neighborhood he can. And by “best neighborhood,” I don’t mean a gated community filled with McMansions. I mean a neighborhood filled with belonging, identity, empathy, understanding, and a strong sense of community.

To do that, you need to become a good neighbor. But how?

A few years back I edited a book called The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. Pathak is a pastor in Denver, Colorado, and Runyon works for the Denver Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps municipal governments, businesses, and faith-based leaders unite around common causes.

The idea for the book began one day in 2009 when Pathak and Runyon gathered a group of twenty leaders to brainstorm ways they could better serve their communities. Bob Frie, mayor of Arvada (one of the cities within the greater Denver area), joined them, and the group asked Frie a simple question: How can we best work together to serve our city?

The ensuing discussion revealed a laundry list of social problems similar to what many cities face: at risk-kids, areas with dilapidated housing, child hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, loneliness, elderly shut-ins with no one to look in on them. The list went on and on.

Then the mayor said something that stopped cold the discussion. “The majority of issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.”

Read that quote again if you need to. Its ramifications could well affect your life.

Frie explained that neighboring relationships are more effective than civic programs because they are organic and ongoing. When neighbors are in relationship with one another, for instance, the elderly shut-ins get cared for by the person next door, the at-risk kid gets mentored by a dad who lives on the block, and so on.

The group took the mayor’s words to heart. They began a city-wide initiative aimed at helping people learn these ideas and then apply them where they lived. They called their initiative simply: The Art of Neighboring. These are some of the findings from their study.

1. Being a good neighbor begins with a positive, proactive mindset.

“The solutions to the problems in our neighborhoods aren’t ultimately found in the government, police, schools, or in getting more people to go to church,” Runyon and Pathak wrote in their book. “The solutions lie with us. It’s within our power to become good neighbors, to care for the people around us, and to be cared for by the people around us.”

That’s where becoming a good neighbor begins. It begins with how a man thinks. Instead of seeing the place he lives only as the place he hangs his hat, he begins to see the place he lives as a place he influences. He knows it’s up to him to make things better.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point agrees. Exploring the “broken windows” theory first articulated several decades ago, he described how even small things done or left undone in a neighborhood can spur crime rates up or down.

When litter isn’t picked up, when graffiti remains on a wall or fence, when a window is broken but not fixed – these can all communicate that a neighborhood is declining, Gladwell wrote. And when people’s outward environments appear to decline, people tend to respond socially with less care, thus the potential for increased crime.

The opposite is true as well. Just as lapses in signs of care and concern can set off an escalation in deterioration, so can positive actions create a chain reaction of improvement. Thus, a good neighbor’s mindset is focused on how he can influence his neighborhood for the better, and he seeks to address problems while they are still small, nipping them in the bud. He feels a sense of ownership, sees his neighborhood as a reflection of himself, and knows his actions affect others. He begins to be a good neighbor simply and in small ways, undertaking the responsibility of creating an environment that he – and others – will want to live in.

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