It’s no wonder Leslie Oberst can’t imagine life without her neighbors. A nine-year resident of Sacramento’s Elmhurst neighborhood, Oberst and her family have been buoyed by the caring community of people who live on her street and the surrounding blocks.
When Oberst’s husband, Seth, was laid off from his job as a project manager for a construction management company in February, the neighbors didn’t hesitate to jump in and support the family. Within days, they started handing Seth their honey-do lists. “Everyone has been calling on him to do odds and ends jobs that they probably could do themselves, but they figured why not throw the work our way,” says a grateful Oberst.
And although she never hinted at needing help, neighbors also pitched in to mow her lawn, cook meals for the family and play with her two daughters while Seth was out of town for six weeks on a temporary work assignment. “It hasn’t even been questions of ‘How’s the job search going?’ It’s just been unspoken kindness,” says Oberst. “I don’t even know how to thank them.”
“I would never leave here. There is nothing that could make me leave,” says one of Oberst’s neighbors, Donna Stevenson, of the neighborhood near the UC Davis Medical Center. “It’s an amazing neighborhood. When I talk to people, they can’t believe there’s so much going on.”
Indeed, the long list of activities organized by the tight-knit neighbors on two of Elmhurst’s leafy, tree-lined blocks rivals that of a Carnival cruise liner: monthly bunco and poker games, two annual picnics on the nearby greenway, a Fourth of July parade and potluck, Christmas caroling, a progressive holiday dinner party, spontaneous wine gatherings. And that’s just the fun stuff.
The neighbors also host a community garage sale in the spring and deliver meals to anyone who is ill, has experienced a death in the family or is caring for a new baby. “It’s just a really neat neighborhood,” says Stevenson. “We really take care of each other.”
Victoria Alvarez, who has lived in Elmhurst for almost 20 years, describes the camaraderie as priceless. “It is really nice to feel very secure that you know everyone around you and that they care about you and you care about them,” says Alvarez.
What makes her collection of neighbors so close when other neighborhoods are socially fragmented? Oberst answers, “I can tell you what we all have in common: I think we are all pretty humble people. We all live in the same style house that needs improvement; no one has the fancy new car. There’s not this keeping up with the Joneses around here. It’s honest living. There are no airs.”
Stevenson, who has lived in Elmhurst for 25 years, has her own explanation. “One of the reasons we are so close—and it’s a simple, simple reason—is that our garages are not in front of our houses. So you don’t drive into the garage, close the door behind you and never see your neighbors.”
An Unexpected Bond
Sometimes, abiding friendships sprout between neighbors whose lives might not otherwise intersect. Crystal Taylor, who has lived in Sacramento’s Reith Park neighborhood near Cosumnes River College for 13 years, describes how her neighbors rallied to the defense of a man who lived in nearby transitional housing—living accommodations for individuals on the brink of homelessness.
“A lot of times, [transitional housing] is something neighbors shy away from and don’t want to deal with,” says Taylor. “But the people in our neighborhood actually embraced these gentlemen and became friends with one in particular.”
Taylor, who serves as the president of the neighborhood association, said one Saturday last year, she was greeted by a group of neighbors gathered at her doorstep, concerned that the man had been asked to leave the group home because of a conflict that had arisen. “They were looking into every possible option to keep him in the house because they had come to love this person as part of our neighborhood and part of our family,” says Taylor.
Ultimately, the man moved to another home in the vicinity and remains a valued member of the Reith Park community. “For some reason, he created this bond in our neighborhood that is ongoing and unbreakable,” says Taylor. “He’s not an angel; he can be cantankerous. But there was something about his willingness to give, his openness.” Last year, for example, he planted a flourishing garden in
Taylor’s backyard that now provides fresh vegetables to many families in the neighborhood.
Tackling Crime Together—A similar phenomenon has occurred in the South Sacramento neighborhood near Franklin Boulevard and Mack Road where Barbara Falcon has lived for 20 years. As neighbors have banded together over the past year or so to confront escalating crime, friendships have blossomed. And something else has happened, too: People have felt empowered to help their neighbors like never before.
Falcon tells the story of a woman who discovered that neighbors bordering her property had been carjacked in their own driveway. She rushed over to aid the victims, who spoke only Spanish, and ended up translating their account to the police. The woman’s fast action helped them quickly arrest four teenagers who had stolen the car.
“It all happened because this woman was empowered to make that phone call, run over to the neighbors, stand by and translate,” says Falcon. “This is a woman who would have never confronted anyone a year ago.”
Although crime remains a problem in the area, those helping to fight it have become even more invested in the neighborhood. Falcon says one neighbor of 10 years considered moving when things started going downhill. She changed her mind, however, because of the friendships she has formed and the work still left to be done.
A Caring Committee
Indeed, sometimes a negative event can bring out the best in neighbors. Ramie Gallagher, a 15-year resident of East Sacramento, describes how a tight-knit group of moms from her neighborhood near Sutter Memorial Hospital rallied around the family of a young neighbor diagnosed with cancer in 2008. They opened up a bank account for receiving monetary donations and scheduled regular meal delivery for the family while the 5-year-old underwent treatment.
Neighbors raised $3,000 for the family during a garage sale last fall. “It was definitely a neighborhood effort, with lots of people stepping forward and saying, ‘What can we do to help this family?’” says Gallagher. “For me, this family feels like our extended family, so it just feels like the right thing to do and it makes us all happy to be there for each other.”
What’s for Dinner?
Judy Chatwin of Heritage Park, an active adult community in North Natomas, also experienced the compassion of her neighbors when she was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008.
“It was really amazing, the people that were there to help,” says Chatwin. “I always say that when something goes wrong, they circle the wagons, and that’s truly a description of how it is here. By the time I came home from the hospital, there was a month’s worth of people signed up to bring us dinner each night.”
Providing the Necessities
In Sacramento’s Parkway Estates North neighborhood near the Southgate Plaza shopping center between Franklin Boulevard and Highway 99, Jeanne Lemkuil has for years helped neighbors and others in financial distress by operating a clothes closet from her home and at a nearby school. Through word of mouth and the community newsletter, families connect with Lemkuil and put in their requests, from shoes for the children to household items like towels and dishes. What items Lemkuil doesn’t have on hand she’ll locate at garage sales or purchase herself from a store.
What motivates her to aid her neighbors in this unique way? “I feel satisfaction that I’ve helped people. It’s as simple as that,” says the modest Lemkuil. “It’s just from my heart. I’m not connected witha church or anything; it’s just an act of love.”
Help From Across the Street—Nora Oldwin, a 20-year resident of her street in east Davis, knows what it’s like for a neighbor to offer much-needed support during a difficult time. Shortly after she moved to the neighborhood, Oldwin’s infant child died, leaving her and her husband in a deep well of grief. A neighbor from across the street went beyond the call of duty to help ease her pain.
“This woman took me under her wing and brought us dinner every day for a year, cleaned our house, sat with me while I cried, took me back to the hospital so that I could see the doctor who had last handled my child,” says Oldwin. “I recently told her that I couldn’t have made it through that time without her, and that was 19 years ago. She has been a steadfast friend.”
Today, that same neighbor hosts an informal gathering affectionately called “garage girls.” “When the weather gets nice, all the women in the neighborhood come over and we bring something to eat and we sit and drink and talk and share all the gripes about our husbands,” says Oldwin. “And then our husbands come, and we all have a great time.”
On Oldwin’s street, kids hop casually from house to house on any given day. “I make chocolate chip cookies, so everyone knows they can always get a cookie on their way home from school. So if they got a grade on their report card that they don’t quite want to tell Mom and Dad about, they can tell me.”
East Sacramento resident Lesley Miller knows firsthand that food can be a terrific way to unite neighbors. Miller, who lives near Sacred Heart Church at J and 39th streets, and a neighbor started a weekly dinner swap this past winter after Miller casually mentioned that she anticipated a hectic summer: Her husband, Jonathan, would be studying for the bar exam and neither one of them would have much time to cook.
“When she offered to bring us dinner, we figured, let’s not wait until things get busy this summer; let’s start this now,” says Miller. Now, one evening a week, both households are exempt from kitchen duty. It frees up time, “and you feel so taken care of, too,” says Miller.
Back to the Front Porch
Tom Sumpter, a 20-year resident of Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, agrees that garages can put a damper on neighborliness. In fact, he credits front porches with fostering community among his neighbors.
“We encourage folks here to use their front yards way more to create social space so that when somebody walks by there’s eye contact,” says Sumpter. “Of course, we also have the advantage in Oak Park of having tons of big front porches. It’s vitally important to use that space like my parents did and their parents did.”
Perhaps it’s little surprise that a design feature as pragmatic as porches can help bring people together. What’s unexpected in Oak Park, however, is that the very elements that threaten the bonds between neighbors—particularly crime—have in many cases strengthened them. Sumpter reports that deep friendships have formed among those working together to improve the place they call home. “We’re trying to build a strong neighborhood,” he says, “and the best way to do that is to know your neighbors and have that connection.”
To that end, Sumpter and his neighbors host potlucks, garden parties and drum circles with regularity. They also hold a pumpkin festival in the fall and a neighborhood breakfast on Christmas morning for those who may have no other place to go. On Monday evenings during the summer months, McClatchy Park is the site of a crop swap where neighbors can share the bounty of their gardens and get something in return. “We have this cool little chart that shows the exchange rates, like how many cut roses for so many pounds of zucchini,” says Sumpter. “And then we just hang out together. That’s the main point: positive uses of this beautiful park that we have.”
The Welcome Mat
Linda Roberts, who lives in East Sacramento’s so-called Thrifty Thirties neighborhood off Folsom Boulevard, says the people on her block bond over food, parties and a shared sense of caring. “It was a block party five or six years ago that kind of started everything,” says Roberts. Today, you’ll find “a lot of exchanging of baby-sitting, young moms watching each others’ kids outside. It’s kind of a very easy flow. People are always in their front yards, so there’s easy conversation.”
Roberts says she was taken aback when neighbors threw a surprise party to welcome her fiancé to the neighborhood (he had lived in Roseville) and celebrate their upcoming nuptials. “It was very tender and welcoming for him.”
Relationships with neighbors, in Roberts’ opinion, take time to cultivate. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual progression of getting to know people and becoming comfortable with them.” But the rewards are readily evident. “You’ll find out that you’re a very diverse group, but for some reason it works.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Creating your own tight-knit neighborhood may require less effort than you think thanks to these tried-and-true tips from veteran good neighbors.
* Host a get-together. “If you can, invite just two neighbors over,” suggests Linda Roberts of East Sacramento. “It’s a start and then it just mushrooms.” Tom Sumpter of Oak Park agrees. “It’s really quite easy to begin networking with your neighbors if you can find one other person that’s willing to throw a little event, like a barbecue, to get to know your neighbors,” he advises.
* Go on walks. “If you do it at the same time every day, you’ll run into the same people every day and it’s inevitable that you’ll start having a conversation,” says Leslie Oberst of Elmhurst. In fact, those spontaneous interactions eventually led to the formation of her neighborhood’s active parents’ group.
* Unite around an issue. For Barbara Falcon and her neighbors, it was crime. “We banded together and created this really empowered group of people.” Committing to a neighborhood watch, Falcon believes, is a great way to bring neighbors together.
* Feed them. “Bake some cookies and bring them over and say, ‘We don’t know each other, but I would like to,’” suggests Nora Oldwin of east Davis. When you bring something you’ve made with your hands or grown in your garden, relationships blossom.
* Be a good neighbor. “It starts with a gift,” says Oldwin, who in the past has greeted newcomers on her street with flowers and a list of her suggestions on where to go for everything from dry cleaning to groceries to oil changes. Offering to water plants or watch a pet while a neighbor is away is another great approach to strengthen relationships. And if you’re lucky, the favor will be reciprocated someday.