There’s something special about my little corner of Seattle.
Neighbors meet monthly and yearly for gatherings and parties; lend and pass along household items; request and provide help for projects; set up meal trains; and regularly check-in and share conversation when out and about.
Community is a process
But this strong sense of neighborliness on our block didn’t just spring up overnight. Through decades of connecting, inviting, and sharing life together, neighbors have created and cultivated a warm and vibrant neighborhood community.
As a relative newbie to the neighborhood, I chatted with two long-time residents, Brenda Swidler and Debbie McDonald, to learn about how they have participated in creating our neighborhood community. They shared their experiences, as well as advice for how anyone can work to create a strong community in their own neighborhoods.
Connections began organically. Neighbors realized their kids went to the same daycare, they returned stray balls back over the fence, and over time they started to get to know people who lived around them. And then it evolved. Neighbors started gathering for tea, multiple households participated in revitalizing our traffic circle, people lent and borrowed tools – neighbors started sharing life together.
As the years passed and connections grew, Debbie said the core group of neighbors realized, “Why don’t we invite everyone?” And so, they did.
Before email and social media, invitations to neighborhood events were sent out via flier. At one point, every house received a flier with a list of neighborhood events scheduled for the year.
When email came on the scene, communication became much easier. Neighbors started collecting email addresses, and now, years later, our neighborhood has a robust email list that quickly and easily connects neighbors. Brenda notes the significance of this email list – how neighbors use it for all kinds of things (requests to borrow items, inquiries about neighborhood goings-on, etc.), and how these communications facilitate deepening connections throughout the neighborhood.
Debbie highlights how our neighborhood, both initially and continually, invites everyone to participate. To create a welcoming spirit, they didn’t pick and choose who to invite when they started hosting neighborhood parties – they left a flier on every porch on the block.
Of course, Debbie notes that “not everybody’s going to participate, and that’s perfectly fine.” But it’s a neighborhood value to include everyone.
Both Brenda and Debbie note the importance of consistency. You never know when someone who has never participated in a neighborhood event is going to decide to join in. Brenda notes that you need “people to reach out, and keep reaching out,” and to not write off neighbors who have never participated. After all, Debbie says, “they may change their mind.”
And in order to keep the sense of community within the neighborhood, regular events are scheduled throughout the year. Women gather for a monthly tea, and there’s a yearly Fourth of July and Christmas party.
Brenda notes that “you can’t just take [the sense of community] for granted.” You need these regular opportunities to check-in and connect.
Benefits of community building
Many people recognize the pros of being a well-connected community. For example, it:
- Promotes relationship building: Debbie notes that “it’s the human connection that makes it stick.”A strong neighborhood is filled with relationships where people know what’s going on in each others’ lives. That means people feel safer in the community, they can ask for help, and they share life together.
- Promotes reuse and sharing: Neighbors (especially with little kids) pass useful items along to each other. Our family has toys, books, and furniture from houses all over the neighborhood. And when we’re done with these items, we’ll pass them on to the next family.
- Saves money: Every year, Brenda arranges a bulk compost delivery for the neighborhood. Neighbors then wheelbarrow it to their homes. Brenda notes that it is a “good use of joint community buying power.”
A first step
A strong neighborhood community doesn’t just spring up overnight. It takes purpose, intention, and individuals willing to put in time to gather contact information and plan events. But, it’s worthwhile work.
When I asked Debbie what she would recommend to people who want to connect with their neighbors, she suggested finding one or two other neighbors who are interested in facilitating a sense of community, and planning a single event to start. Something easy, fun, not too long, and outdoors.
Celebrate the small things
From there, she says, celebrate with the neighbors who do join this and don’t take it personally if others don’t or can’t. Don’t give up after one go — keep trying.
As you begin to reach out and connect, you’ll figure out what works for your neighborhood.
Ask question, listen to answers
The first thing to think about is how to communicate equitably with all your neighbors — that means sending information out and listening deeply to responses. A few questions to consider:
- Is creating an email list right for your block — do most of your neighbors use it or are there others who would prefer using a phone tree, Facebook page or other social media approach, or a good old-fashioned flier as was our neighborhood’s original route of communication.
- How are your neighbors interested in connecting? And how might you survey them to find out?
- What sorts of events might help all neighbors feel included? For example, a progressive summer picnic across neighborhood lawns.
- What sorts of gatherings might leave neighbors feeling left out? For example, would a Christmas block party leave those who do not celebrate the holiday feeling awkward?
- What resources might you share as a community?
Things that help
While you are creating ways for the families on your block or in your neighborhood to gather, connect, have fun together, share resources and learn to rely on each other, a few bits of block etiquette go a long way.
Chief among them? Reach out and be a resource, especially for neighbors new to your block, complex or community. If you see a neighbor in need, help out. Teach your pets to be neighborly (not pottying on a neighbors lawn). And, don’t gossip — talk directly to a neighbor about a problem between you. Visit Home.com for more “good neighbor” tips.
The possibilities for making strong connections and establishing strong communities on your street, in your complex, or within your larger neighborhood are endless.
I am so grateful for the community-building work my neighbors did before my family arrived, and look forward to years of doing my part to keep our neighborhood connected.
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