A friend of mine who recently decamped to the suburbs reported that after two whole months, not a soul had shown up with a warm neighborhood welcome. “Never mind, a bottle of wine or plate of brownies!,” she complained.
What my friend was talking about was what many have historically thought of when they thought of the suburbs (and what, in fact, has for so long drawn so many to such areas): the strong sense of community, of life removed from the hustle and bustle, of knowing your neighbors better than you did back when your shared street was more gray than green. Proximity to people, but with more breathing room—and, in most cases, more of that room for your money, too.
These days, though, the American suburb is floundering—and with it, the good neighbors. The U.S. Census reports that for the first time in nearly a century, many U.S. cities are growing faster than their suburbs. Meanwhile, those who do move out of cities are doing so for increasingly sprawling homes on increasingly bigger pieces of land. If you don’t know your neighbors, maybe it’s because the nearest one is practically a mile away.
As a result, many suburbs are taking on the qualities previously associated with urban centers: Places where people do their own thing, are less involved in one another’s lives, and are less likely to know their neighbors’ names, never mind be invited inside their house.
Research confirms this. In 2012’s Social Trends in American Life the authors presented the latest results of the General Social Survey, an ongoing study that’s tracked changes in society since the 1970s. What the Survey found is that Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbors. Just 30 percent of people reported having gathered socially with their neighbors in the previous month compared to 44 percent in 1974. In fact, the study found, residents of suburbs showed the lowest level of neigborliness of any group studied, which included those in urban and rural areas.
Beyond the bigger houses and wider streets, decline of playgrounds and growing tendency to contract out the yard and other housework, blame could be placed on the increasingly longer commute. Americans spend more time working, and more time commuting, than ever before. A Gallup poll from last year found that the 40-hour workweek is nowcloser to 50. U.S. Census Bureau data, meanwhile, found that the average commute has been increasing steadily since 1980. More than 8 percent of U.S. commuters travel an hour or more to work, and almost 3 percent travel 90 minutes or more, each way. Back in 1980, about 18 percent of workers commuted outside their county of residence; these days, it’s 24 percent. How are people supposed to connect with the neighbors when they’re hardly ever home?
Another factor: The Internet. A 2010 Pew Research Center report found that only 43 percent of Americans know all or most of their neighbors by name. 28 percent, in fact, don’t know the name of a single neighbor. In many cases, people felt there was no longer a need: After all, they can, and do, turn to the Internet for news and information regarding what’s happening in their community.
The unfortunate thing is that science also tells us that there are health benefits associated with being neighborly. A study out of the University of Michigan found that being friendly with your neighbors could reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack. One from the University of Missouri found that those who trusted their neighbors reported better overall health. Which means that the notion of neighborliness is very much worth saving.
There are a few things you can do to start. Some of them are obvious, but deserve repeating: Be considerate. If you’re having a party—or a giant, all-night fight with your spouse—close the windows. Don’t start loud work on your house before 8 a.m., and especially on weekends. Find out if yours is the sort of dog who barks endlessly whenever you leave the house—and do something about it, if so. Basically, that whole ‘do unto others’ thing.
Some steps towards neighborliness are less obvious. Like, if you have a problem with your neighbors’ fence, or dog, or parties and fights, bring it to their attention before going to anyone else. That includes the police and it also includes the neighborhood gossip. They’ll appreciate your directness and honesty, and will be far more likely to want to work towards a solution.
And yes: When a new neighbor moves in, go on over and welcome them. It’ll go a long way to making them feel at home, and engendering good will. Baked goods are, of course, optional, but, well, there’s a reason they call them brownie points.
Peggy Drexler is an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family. Her website is: peggydrexler.com