• Making Friends

Guest Post: Getting Over Feeling Like a Stranger in Your Own Neighborhood

June 11, 2012 | By | 2 Replies Continue Reading

 

With a little bit of moxie, my friend and colleague, Laura E. Kelly, used technology and a new website to overcome the feelings of estrangement from neighbors that are so typical across America today. Laura agreed to write her story here to inspire others who want to get to know their neighbors and possibly make new friends along the way.

By Laura E. Kelly

Yay, got another one!” I crowed to my husband this morning.

Yep, I’d nabbed another neighbor for the neighborhood website I launched last month. In just a few weeks I’ve gotten to “know” more neighbors than in the past decade of living here.

I’m somewhat shy by nature, and in my hilly neighborhood people gather in their backyards since there is virtually no usable front yards or sidewalks here. Out of an enclave of 170 homes, I knew only my next-door neighbors by name. The lack of neighborliness was so pronounced that I was beginning to think about selling our house, and moving somewhere more conducive to meeting people.

So, no wonder my attention was caught by the opening line in a recent New York Times story: “I don’t know many of my neighbors….” The article went on to describe how the writer had become a member of a new online service called Next Door. 

I quickly went to NextDoor.com and poked around the site. Next Door, a new San Francisco start-up backed by some big venture capitalists, is one of a growing number of private neighborhood social networks, including EveryBlock, Neighborland, Neighbortree, HeyNeighbor, and HomeElephant to name just a few. Next Door gives you a forum for posting items of general interest; classified listings for buying, selling or giving away things; and a database for neighbor-recommended local services. That’s the part that sounded good to me. I already had a list of questions for my neighbors, starting with: Could anyone recommend a reliable, non-expensive roofer?

Getting the Word Out

My first concern, though, was “How the heck am I going to get my neighbors to join this thing when I don’t even know their names, let alone their emails?” I decided to create my own one-page explanatory flier (Next Door also offers their own template), attaching a copy of the NY Times article to it. I planned to walk down my hilly street of 20 homes dropping the flier off in my neighbors’ postal boxes.

For our pilot website to be deemed “live” by Next Door, I had to get at least 10 people to sign up within 20 days of activating the site. I thought it would be easy to get at least 50 percent of my immediate neighbors to bite. Why wouldn’t they?

My optimism took a blow, though, on the balmy mid-afternoon I walked down the hill stuffing post boxes and feeling conspicuous. I neared an older gentleman walking his dog, Bo (yes, I knew his dog’s name, but not his). He shouted, “Whatcha doin?” I walked up to him and enthusiastically explained the project. I said, “Here, I have an extra flier. Take it.”

“Oh, no,” he said, shaking his head and walking around me. “That’s not for me.”

“But don’t you want to just read…”

“No! Good luck,” he said decisively as he and Bo moved on.

Hmmm, now I was remembering why I didn’t know many of my neighbors. They are Private with a capital P, and perhaps a little Paranoid, too.

I soldiered on, a bit dazed but undaunted.

When I got back home, I posted three burning questions on the site, including “What are those neon orange markings all over our street?” and sat back and waited for all 20 of my neighbors to immediately respond to my Next Door flier by joining the site.

The Reluctant Neighborhood

I waited for quite a while. It was a couple of days before the first person joined. He answered my question about local contractors who haul away piles of junk. Then another person joined. He turned out to be our town’s Village Manager and knew exactly what those orange markings were (an imminent gas line repair; please don’t park on the street).

Who knew that the Village Manager lived on my street? For neighborhood bulletin purposes, this was a real coup!

But I was still 8 people short of the 10 minimum to make the site live. In a move of desperation, I signed up my uninterested husband as a member. Only 7 more to go. Why weren’t my next-door neighbors, the only folks I knew by name, signing up? They were the types that know everything going on in the neighborhood and would be a real plus to have on the site.

Silence.

Then a couple more people on the block came on board, bringing along their spouses. Several of them were tentative, sharing little about themselves and writing posts about their concerns about privacy. I addressed them as best as I could, saying essentially, “Only share as much info as you’re comfortable with.” I found it interesting how many folks were leery of social networking-maybe they knew something I didn’t?

Around Day 12, I found a handwritten note in my mailbox from an elderly woman down the street. She wrote, “I thank you so much for your very thoughtful intentions for our neighborhood. I do not have an Email but would appreciate information of what is going on if you could drop a note in my mailbox. I’m sorry we’ve not yet met. I look forward to doing so.” She left her phone number and I called her up and we had a nice conversation.

The Deadline Nears

On Day 16, I was ready to call the experiment a failure.

These people just aren’t interested, I thought. Maybe I should give up on my neighborhood and move out. And then I noticed a Next Door feature called “Invitations.” On their own dime, Next Door offered to send out a friendly postcard to all 170 households in my larger neighborhood. I wondered briefly if this could seem like an invasion of privacy to people, but thought it was worth a try.

Soon after, I got the key 10th household-my knowledgeable next-door neighbor came through on deadline day-and we were a “live” site. By now I had answers to all my neighborhood questions and had responded to other people’s questions as well (although I couldn’t do much more than agree with the existential lament a neighbor posted about how she missed the Borders bookstore in our town and “why are there no more bookstores?”)

So today here I am, posting virtual welcomes to new neighbor members as they trickle in in response to the Next Door postcards. In the end, our neighborhood site may never have more than 20 or so households, but I now know the names of 10 people on my street and next week I’m walking down into town for coffee with a woman I met via the site, who lives one hilly street over and does similar work to mine.

We tend to think of technology as cutting off neighbors from each other, each in our little digital cocoon. In this case, though, it’s actually bringing us together. Some neighbors no doubt still have some privacy concerns and it’s possible that the service may someday start running ads to make money (as they all do). But for now it’s doing a great job of helping me no longer feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood.


About Laura: Laura E. Kelly is a new media editor, writer and design consultant.

What efforts have you made to get to know your neighbors?

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Category: How to make friends, MAKING FRIENDS

Comments (2)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I found the Jubilee celebrations were a brilliant way to meet the neighbours and I think many others in the UK did also. I’m shy and I find events like these a good excuse to meet people. Of course street parties can’t be held every week but there’s always an opportunity somewhere. I wish we had those neighbourhood sites in the UK though. That sounds like a fantastic idea.

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