Essay: Building a Better Neighborhood

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A Sacramento woman considers what it takes to be neighborly.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a good  neighbor. Not just the fruitcake-at-Christmas kind of neighbor or the hello over the fence kind of neighbor, but the kind of neighbor who makes a place worth remembering.

It all started about two years ago when our neighbors moved out and rented their home to what you might call a nontraditional family: five children, all cousins, living with their grandma&emdash;plus a changing array of mothers, boyfriends, aunts and uncles who came and went and sometimes stayed awhile. They were a friendly bunch, always quick to say hello. They also spent a crazy amount of their free time playing basketball in their driveway. So maybe it was inevitable that pretty soon the group wandered over to our driveway and checked out our basketball hoop&emdash;the nice, shiny new one we gave my husband for Father’s Day a couple of years ago. Can we use your hoop? the boys asked. Sure, my husband answered. Just don’t hang on the rim. After that, they started to hang out pretty regularly in our driveway.

Of course, it gets hot in Sacramento, especially when you’re playing basketball. So, as spring turned into summer that first year, the kids began to take breaks in the shade of our porch, lounging on our wooden porch swing and wicker rocking chair. I was a bit surprised to discover them there the first time but decided it was harmless. After that, I simply reminded them, Don’t swing too hard. It’s not like the swings at the park, when I found them lounging in the shade. They’d always say OK very politely.

And then the youngest would usually ask, Whatcha doing?  Where y’all going? Sometimes I’d tell her, but sometimes I would just change the subject because, after all, it wasn’t her business to know.

I’ll be honest: It was a bit unsettling, even irritating, this entering of my personal space by these loud, happy kids. I kind of missed the quiet anonymity of my suburban neighborhood. And they didn’t always stick by our rules. They sometimes hung on the hoop and surfed on the porch swing when they thought we weren’t looking. Yet I couldn’t help asking myself if it wasn’t my duty to be a good neighbor to this bunch&emdash;kids who’d, quite frankly, had a few knocks in life. Where did neighborliness end and privacy begin? My rights versus your rights. My space versus your space.

There were other opportunities to reflect on this question as well. I remember one conversation I had over the fence with a neighbor behind me, whom I’d never met before. We were bemoaning the increasing number of home break-ins in our Pocket/Greenhaven neighborhood. We need to look out for each other, I urged him. If you hear our dog barking suspiciously, could you look over the fence and call the police? He was cordial but noncommittal. Make sure you turn on your alarm, he said. That was all.

Another neighbor gave me an earful one day about the state of our grass, which admittedly has seen better days. That was a bit depressing. My husband really tries to keep the lawn green and happy, mowing and fertilizing and dousing it with more weed-killing chemicals than a toxic dump. We just have bad grass karma, I guess. So, once more, we wrestled with the good neighbor question. Do good neighbors have good grass?

I did not grow up in a big city like Sacramento. I grew up in a lightly developed lakeside community in Wisconsin, where there were still patches of woods and fields between homes and miles of beachfront to explore. Fences between neighboring homes were rare, and because the neighborhood was crawling with kids, we grew accustomed to cutting through everyone’s yards en route to the next game of dodge ball or on our way to the beach.

Not all the neighbors approved of this free-for-all. One older couple especially earned a reputation for being unfriendly to kids. No problem. We avoided their property and skipped their house during Halloween and Girl Scout cookie sales. (True confession, though: We did occasionally ride our bikes or roller skate over their pristinely asphalted circular driveway, which dipped and curved in just the perfect manner. Believe me, it couldn’t be helped.)

I loved my neighborhood&emdash;the way adults waved to each other as they walked their dogs and kids of all ages played kick the can together until it grew too dark to see. My neighborhood wasn’t perfect, but it was welcoming. It was real.

That neighborhood has changed since the ’70s, just as Sacramento has changed. Nowadays, houses are built close together, and most people depend on fences to offer safety and some semblance of privacy. Homes are larger. Lawns are manicured by gardeners. We spend more time inside, or we’re away from home more, on the go. But I can’t help wondering if something is missing. How will my kids remember their neighborhood? As warm and welcoming to all? Or pristine and quiet and anonymous? Will they have sweet memories of special neighbors who knew their names and always greeted them with a smile? Maybe. It’s hard to say.

One day, the family next door&emdash;the one with all the kids&emdash;packed up and moved across the neighborhood. Pray for us, the grandmother said sadly. I did. I will.

I miss those kids. I miss their exuberance as they played basketball, their laughter, their curiosity about our lives. I miss the way they challenged me to be a good neighbor and made me remember the best things about my own childhood neighborhood. I want another chance to build a neighborhood worth remembering.