Up until a few weeks ago, my wife and I had lived in the city of Chicago for almost seven years. We always loved its mix of “Big City” cultural opportunities and Midwestern friendliness, but having children pushed us to the suburbs. Once we moved, we realized something odd about our time in the city: we barely ever talked to the people who lived closest to us.
We realized it when a neighbor introduced herself on the day we moved in. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking – she was just saying hi and welcoming us to the neighborhood. But we were so used to our urban isolation that suburban friendliness caught us off guard. Then another neighbor did the same thing. Then another. Every one of our immediate neighbors made a concerted effort to meet us during the first week we were in our new house. It made us feel welcome, and it made me wonder why we had never experienced that (or done it ourselves) while we lived in the city.
Part of the problem was the transient nature of city life. We lived in one apartment for no more than a year, then another for three, and so on. As we were coming and going, so were our neighbors. We were renters uninterested in investing in those around us who we knew were just as likely to wander as we were.
There was also the general numbness that people living in urban areas develop in defense to the everyday sights and sounds of density. It wasn’t intentionally cold; it was survival. Stare straight ahead on the crowded train; don’t make eye contact. If someone tries to hand you something on the street, walk away. Put your headphones on and power through.
This state of intentional unawareness carried over to those we live around. Reaching out was always a risk, so we didn’t make the effort unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I’m not convinced it had to be that way, and others are agreeing with me. New sites are trying to resolve the general skittishness we all feel about meeting our neighbors by making it easy to connect with them online. Sites like Nextdoor, EveryBlock and Meet The Neighbors are all trying to bring the global nature of social networking back to local roots. Whether they work or not, I’ve decided to get out of my isolation and make an effort.
What should that look like? Do you have a similar experience, or are you close with your neighbors? How did you get to know them, and what tips to you have for the rest of us for reaching out?
Caleb Gardner is an amateur father and husband who writes at The Exceptional Man and dabbles in photography, design, and music. When listening to the cacophony of modern-day America, Caleb prefers a side of Scotch. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less-nice things.