Love Thy Neighbor (Sometimes)

A close-knit neighborhood can make us happy, but it can also add to the busy-ness of daily life

Two springs ago, my family and I—like thousands of other homeowners marching to the beat of a homemade Michael Pollan-drum—dug up the lawn in our front yard and planted a vegetable garden.

Our reasons were simple. We were spending too much money on organic fruits and vegetables every week, and too often we threw away moldy cukes or wilted kale—that glum slog—from crisper to compost. And we thought it would be fun to teach our kids how to grow food.

Indeed, we felt righteous that first summer padding outside with the colander and kitchen scissors before every meal. For first-time gardeners like us, every plant hatched from seed was a surprise and a miracle. “We GREW this!” we were constantly exclaiming over mouthfuls of snap peas or chard. The basil was abundant, the kale reliable, the cherry tomatoes like candy, the lettuces as good as any you'd find at a farmers' market. But the biggest surprise of all, and one of the best things about this garden, is the way our neighbors and random passersby have responded to it.

One way to describe it is that the garden makes people happy and it makes them want to talk with us. It's a leafy social lubricant. After living with a weedy front lawn for ten years, we're still in shock at how a few raised wooden beds and some pea gravel can elicit so much talk. The way people have dawdled over it, you'd think we'd done something more extravagant or unusual.

The garden hasn't changed the way we interact with immediate neighbors, who tend to gather on the sidewalk or in front yards after work or on weekends when the weather is good, which is mostly in the summer. It would be hard not to know these neighbors since our houses are so close together, close enough that if we're outside, we can hear it when someone is clipping his toenails on his front porch.

But the garden has helped introduce us to people from other blocks, people with whom, pre-garden, we merely nodded hello as we passed on the sidewalk. These neighbors stop and talk about what we're growing, and the conversation usually meanders into the territory of children, families, and work until it peters out or we have to go inside to answer a phone or rescue something from the oven. One person left us a used food processor on the front porch when I told her we were making pesto, one small batch at a time, in a blender. (In a blender!) The gift left me feeling exposed and a little bit embarrassed but also very well taken care of.

My theory about the garden is that it gives people a reason to linger on their walk home from the neighborhood pub or on their nightly dog walk. I see them hanging out most often in those hours between dinner and bedtime when nothing much is happening. They'll stand at the thigh-high fence pointing at the basil patch or admiring the walkway we made from old wine bottles. If I'm on the front porch, they'll usually throw out a compliment or ask me a question, and, if I'm in the mood, I'll wander down the path and talk with them.

In our mostly residential, middle-class neighborhood, the garden is like a “third place”—a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great, Good Place to describe a gathering spot that's not home (first place) or work (second place). It's a noncommittal visiting zone where people can socialize without breaching the privacy of anyone's home. Though Oldenburg uses the examples of bars and coffee shops to describe these places; an inviting garden or an open porch can function in the same way. The Starbucks down the street uses a business plan around this third-place concept, and we're giving it away for free in the yard.

The third place makes sense not because we want to spend all our free time with neighbors, but because we don't. It's a destination when you're in the mood to socialize, a place where you can meet other people in the same mood.

One of my favorite neighbors is a college professor with a preschool-aged son. She is one of those people who will give you an honest, unedited answer when asked how she's doing and will elicit the same from you. And she has this great way of elevating whatever conversation we're having into something bigger, pulling in something interesting she heard at a conference or in the classroom or read in The New Yorker. She is one of the few neighbors who will knock on the door unannounced. I love the neighborliness of this, and I know she expects us to do the same and never answers the door with the strained smile I offer sometimes. But occasionally she will drop by with her son when we're trying to leave the house or right before the girls—who adore her son—are about to nap. It doesn't take a minute for our children to get entangled in play and for us to get caught up in a conversation.

The discomfort I feel during such times speaks less about her and more about my clumsy inability to communicate what I'm thinking: “I love spending time with you, but this is not a good time.” If I turn her away, will she think I'm a bad neighbor? Will she stop dropping by without calling? But, wait, isn't that what I want?

This is why the third place makes so much sense. Though neighbors are the reason we live in a neighborhood, actually talking with a neighbor is often left to chance encounters on the sidewalk, especially in the winter when everyone rushes inside from their cars or bikes after work. Even in the summer, it can be awkward to strike up a conversation with someone—stranger or neighbor—just for the sake of having a conversation. Real life isn't like Seinfeld or the dorms; we've got too much stuff to do, too many places to be. But much of the current research on happiness says that people are, on the whole, much happier when they have many friends and social groups—so shouldn't we spend more time on these interactions rather than hurrying through them?

When we were vacationing in Mexico a couple of years ago, each morning and evening we watched a group of men gather on a dock near our rental house. They leaned against a waist-high wall. They looked at each other, looked at their feet, looked out at the boats coming in, the metal tanks of fuel being loaded and unloaded—not even the pretense of coffee or drinks to keep them there. I could see them laughing sometimes, not saying anything at all at other times. By body language I could tell they were comfortable with lulls in the conversation and not antsy to move on. I loved the honesty of it, the acknowledgement that people need to be around other people, even when they don't have anything to say or do.

I am, no doubt, idealizing their purposes for hanging out there. As my husband points out, maybe they didn't have anything else to do or anywhere else to be. Both are likely, but neither diminishes my fascination with how normal that gathering was in a remote fishing village in Mexico, yet how unusual it would be in my neighborhood for a group of unrelated people to gather morning and night with no purpose other than to be with one another, to watch the goings on in the village, to nod at passersby.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a group of Italians who moved to Pennsylvania in 1882 and built a town similar to their hometown in Italy (both named Roseto). It eventually attracted twelve hundred more Italian immigrants, creating an ethnic enclave. When a doctor studied the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s, he found almost no incidents of heart attacks and heart disease, as well as no suicide, no alcoholism or drug addiction, and little crime. In studying the reasons, he and his sociologist colleagues were perplexed. The Italians didn't eat particularly healthfully—many consumed lots of meat and carbs—and many smoked heavily. They didn't exercise much, either.

What researchers found was that, in general, the townspeople were happy. They saw each other daily, visiting in the street and in their backyards. Many households included three generations living together. There were twenty-two civic organizations in a town of two thousand people. One of the sociologists, John Bruhn, says, “I remember going to Roseto for the first time ... all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other. ... It was magical.” Isn't this the kind of magic so many of us want, except we don't want to live in the same town as our families, and we want time alone everyday to surf the Internet and connect with our friends on Facebook?

So many days we're too busy with work, errands, and chores to stop and talk with our neighbors. My daughters and I tend to see people more on the days when I'm not pushing us back toward home, the car, or our bikes with some deadline looming over us. When we just hang out, we have purposeless conversations that often lead to interesting places (So many artists in the neighborhood—what about an art camp for kids? Or painting murals in the intersection?), or the kids end up getting naked and running through someone's sprinkler, or we learn something interesting about someone we've known for years.

And, honestly, I'm torn. I get more done on the days I keep my head down and hustle the kids into the house. Sometimes getting stuff done has its own satisfaction. Who doesn't get a little burst of happiness by crossing something off her to-do list?

It takes a lot of time to keep up with the neighbors and participate in your community, while also keeping up with your friends, your spouse, your kids, and your extended family, as well as holding down a job and keeping your house relatively clean and stocked with food. Maybe those Italian Americans in Pennsylvania were healthy and happy because they could accomplish all of these things by walking within a five-block radius of their homes. There was no need to send a birthday package or to drive across town for the party. The party was down the street.

There is a distinct joy in keeping your world small, in living most of your life within blocks of your home as those Italians did, in seeing your postal carrier at the restaurant around the corner or walking to the fish market where your neighbor works and walking home again with tuna for dinner. I can't explain why all of this makes me happy—and I know it might be someone else's version of hell—but it does.

So, most summer nights, you'll find us on our porch or in the garden. We could be in the back yard enjoying the privacy and more space, but it's more fun to see people and talk with them in that agendaless way. And when winter comes and the garden turns to muck, we're also happy to go inside where it's just us again.

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Also in this Issue

The Long Look Back

Pursuing the Science of Happiness

Love Thy Neighbor (Sometimes)

A Nation of Can-Do Optimists

How Courtenay Got Her Funny Back

Laughing Into the Abyss

Funny Is All I Got