love is blind, neighbors ain’t


This anti- and pro-vaccine talk has got me wondering: is the problem here not so much a mistrust of Big Pharma and Big Government, but the fact that Americans stopped giving a shit about their neighbors? I don’t want to turn this into a limp-reasoned graduate thesis on the decaying fabric of American society, but there has to have been some real damage done to our psyche when we stopped knowing the names of the people sleeping fifty feet from us. Our sense of community atrophied, and with it, our collective empathy.

I’m not saying everyone is like this: certainly there are thriving communities in Chapel Hill, and god knows my brother Sean in Astoria knows half his neighborhood through collective playdates. But for most everyone else, the planned communities and large houses and packed subways have inured us to our fellow country and citymen, and when you no longer care about your community, the more likely you’d be to say “I’ve gotta protect myself and my kids – everyone else can fend for themselves.”

Every study on attitudes towards homosexuals reaches the same conclusion: people stop being homophobes when they meet a gay person. Simple exposure to other lifestyles radically eradicates most forms of bigotry. And when we stop knowing who our neighbors are, these resentments build back up.

I don’t have a general theory on this (although I’m sure I could whip something up about Republicans), but I’m interested: do any of you live in a house or an apartment, and not know the names of the people on either side of you? (full disclosure: for many years, definitely guilty as charged)

0 thoughts on “love is blind, neighbors ain’t

  1. CM

    Guilty. Well, I know their first names, but we only exchange pleasantries in the halls. The fact is, our schedules are all very different. I barely see my neighbors.
    As for vaccines, I don’t think people are thinking of it in terms of hurting the other kids in the sandbox. They are just scared for their own.

  2. Lee

    I’ve been thinking about yesterday’s post and all the comments and am thinking that it’s not so much about unconcern for one’s neighbor’s as it is about having to wade through the thick sea of what is actually safe for your child or not- when every decision you make about your child is one you’ve had to research and challenge conventional truths. Like- even though this Crayola brand sidewalk chalk says “non-toxic” and it’s been approved to come to this country, does it really have lead in it? Yes. Is my child gonna be ok because she has to drink formula instead of breast milk? Sure. As long as it doesn’t have that ingredient from China in it that you didn’t know about that has killed lots of babies in China but not here, of course. Is it ok to use these plastic bottles that are the only kind you can buy? There’s been no link to BPA and any sort of injury to kids. Oh wait, now research shows there is a link and that somehow the plastic can leach into the drink that’s stored in the plastic.
    I mean, how are we supposed to make any kind of “informed” decision when we’re constantly having to decide which experts to believe and which ones are full of shit.
    So 5 years from now if they do discover some sort of link btwn the MMR vaccine (that’s the one we’re talking about, right?) and autism, how many people will be totally shocked?

  3. T.J.

    “The planned communities and large houses and packed subways have inured us to our fellow country and citymen”
    Being a Libertarian, I blame it on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other similar social programs. why worry about your neighbor when the government will take care of them? If something’s going wrong next door with the kids, call DSS. If their dogs are barking too loud, call Animal Control. And then TV, A/C, and the Internet have kept people inside more than they used to be. There’s a lot of factors.

  4. josie

    “The planned communities and large houses and packed subways have inured us to our fellow country and citymen”
    I don’t see subways fitting into this equation, as transit is a communal activity. It’s cars that are isolating. Cars are driven into giant retractable overhead doors in the suburbs, so that a human entering his/her abode never needs to see a neighbor before walking into their garage-fronted home.
    Why did you feel the need to throw subway in there as a tool of mass alienation? I wonder why riding transit in NYC feels so different from transit in, say, Portland, Seattle or Chicago? Is there a critical mass tipping point? Is it the whole underground thing?
    From yesterday’s topic, I didn’t read the comments debate, but I’d be hard pressed to believe that those who choose not to vaccinate are thinking about anything else but the health of their own child. They certainly aren’t grasping the possibility that their child might be “Patient #1” of a future pandemic.
    And on today’s topic, I have to say that I am proud to know my neighbors very well. We’re a diverse, urban group who share tools and trade expertise. I think we know each other because we live so close together, in homes with front doors and porches as opposed to garages, with wide communal sidewalks to meet and play upon.
    But the real glue is the kids….the babies bring us all together like a true village. When we moved here there was one other family with kids, and they were older. Now, we have 8 children five and under on the block, and it’s AMAZING.
    There is always someone willing to give you a hand when you need it most.
    I’m sick of so many problems with my old home and have contemplated moving, but the price of losing my neighbors is too high.

  5. chm

    It won’t surprise anyone to learn that there’s an enormous historical literature on the disappearance of community in America. One of the common threads of this literature is that increased participation in the market is one of the principal “eroders” of community, traditionally understood. Increased worldliness begets the Halfway Covenant; fence laws and the early nineteenth-century market revolution make subsistence farming increasingly untenable; the postwar boom makes it possible to move grandma out of the extra room; etc., etc., etc. It’s hard to conjure too many tears for these lost worlds since, in most cases, people voluntarily opted for more individualism, less community. I just wanted to point out that, TJ to the contrary, there’s probably more to this phenomenon than giving poor and old people access to health care.

  6. Megan

    Like Josie, I’m proud and lucky to live in a tightly-knit urban community. We’re an infill cul-de-sac in an established neighborhood in Durham. I know everyone in the 17 houses on our block, partly from regular cook-outs and progressive dinners, and partly because, like Josie, we have front doors, porches, and a street we can play in. We take care of each others’ pets, children, and gardens and are genuinely interested in each others’ welfare.
    I realize that this is unusual, and that’s one of the reasons I never want to move, even if one of us got a tempting job offer elsewhere.

  7. emma

    I feel very lucky to live in the neighborhood that I do with such good neighbors. We have lived in our house for about 3 1/2 years. To our left lives my sister’s best friend for the last 35 years or so, along with her husband and 17 and 15 year old daughters. They came to see my six year old play softball last night. The girls babysit for us often. We go to watch some of their basketball games, softball games, soccer games, tennis matches, plays, recitals. I have been observing these girls closely watching them grow up since they were 9 and 7 and to help one of them get ready for the prom last month almost brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
    On our other side, is a guy I went to high school with (he took my best friend to homecoming over 20 years ago). He is living in his mom’s house. We don’t see him very much, but my husband has been representing him on a criminal matter for over 6 months – hasn’t received a penny in payment other than the couple of pounds of scallops he gave us a couple of months ago.
    Ain’t small time life grand? or do I mean to say bizarre?

  8. LFMD

    We live on the same street that my husband grew up on. . . and most of the neighbors are the original families from when Tim was a kid. Most of the folks are senior citizens now, and I am known as “little Timmy’s wife.” Of course, Little Timmy is a 42 year old, 6′ 1″ tall man with gray hair, but that is besides the point.
    I also know the names of every dog on the street.

  9. LFMD

    HEY!!!! I just realized that most of my neighbors are elderly and most likely have NOT had the same rounds of vaccines that my daughter has received!!!!!
    Damn those oldsters and their herd immunity mentality! Apparently, the octogenarians don’t give a hoot about Little Timmy’s Little Girl. I have mowed their yards and retrieved their mail for the last time!

  10. Caroline

    I know my next door neighbor and my across-the-hall neighbor. The lady on the other side never talks to me and I have no idea what her name is. I smile at her and say hi and she sort of ignores me. H***, a very pretty young woman, lives across the hall with her teensy dog. H*** is never home and her teensy dog yips all the time. G*** lives next door and, according to his housekeeper who I see in the laundry room, has a pathological neatness disorder. She even gave me a tour of his closets. It was like Martha Stewart heaven. I thought I was tidy. I’m a slob next to this guy. It was fabulous. His housekeeper is a hoot. He also brings home different ladies about every weekend, which my husband and I love to observe. It makes us sound super creepy and old even though G*** is pretty much our age. (Which is youthful and fabulous.) Names have been omitted to protect the innocent/somewhat slutty.

  11. julie

    I definitely know my neighbors on either side of me. One is the best ever, being that they are older but also have 2 boys who are the exact spacing as my 2. The Mom is the quasi grandmother–the kids used to go over there and eat breakfast with her, she bakes for me, she spoils the kids rotten. Then, I have the flip side on the other. The man is the rudest person I have ever seen and has no clue what it is to be a nice neighbor (mows grass at ridiculous times of day/night, uses entirely too much pesticide for my liking and for my kids’ and dogs’ safety, I could go on and on). He once yelled at my kids for playing on their swing set–said they were too loud for outside and it was keeping him from his reading. We know most of our other neighbors as the neighborhood is small (24 homes), but the real issue is that most of the families do not spend any time outside. That philosophy applies to half of the residences, which I find disappointing. We actually would like to move to a more “family friendly” neighborhood, but that would open a whole new topic of the current housing market, can we afford what we want, whether or not our house would sell etc, etc.

  12. frcathie

    our next door neighbor committed suicide two weeks ago. no one found him for a week. i didn’t even find out about until two days later than that, despite the POLICE TAPE that was apparently around the house.
    chris and i feel like the worst neighbors ever.
    but incidentally, the way i DID find out was from someone in my church, whose daughter lives across the street. i will just say that more than neighborhoods anymore, churches are places that are inter-generational, inter-racial, from all walks of life, and places where people really learn to care for others. yes, this is a plug.

  13. Tessa

    “do any of you live in a house or an apartment, and not know the names of the people on either side of you? (full disclosure: for many years, definitely guilty as charged)” But sweetie, you’re not guilty as charged… We do know our neighbors.
    In Venice, we know (and, in most cases, have numbers for) Patrick, Masha, Beth, Richard, Craig, Jennifer, the other Craig, Kori, Mike & Judy, David & Helena, Jeff & Jada, Jasmine, Patti, Petrarca, Carol and Flora & Drew before they moved. Surprisingly, I have friendships with more neighbors in urban LA than I ever have in my life.
    I remember reading a study that demonstrated people with diverse relationships – which span in intimacy from immediate family to colleagues to friendly interactions with the dry cleaner – were likely to have the most balanced mental health. For that alone, I like our interactions with our neighbors. And, I love that Lucy has such a clear sense of belonging because she knows so many people on our street.

  14. Annie H.

    I know my neighbors! Almost all of ’em, up & down the street. Then again, I do live in Carrboro…

  15. Lara

    We live on the north side of Chicago in a townhouse complex with eight units, and are lucky to know and like all of the neighbors. I admit we didn’t really get to know the other neighbors on our street until we had kids and were thus outside playing at the local parks, etc.
    One of the things I like best about our complex is that there are two gay couples, two straight couples with kids, two straight couples without kids, a single straight woman and a single gay man. It would never occur to our daughters that there was anything “wrong” with any of these arrangements.
    We are looking to buy a single family in the next year or so and the big debate is city vs. suburbs. One of the pros of the suburbs, of course, is the large number of kids around and the ability for our daughters to run around with them in front and back yards. But one of the biggest cons to me is that virtually all of the neighbors would be the same race, sexual orientation and have the same family situation. But I guess that is a subject for a different blog.

  16. Sean

    I live in New York, and I can’t walk down my street without talking to more than one of my neighbors, it’s simply impossible.
    I heard an interesting thought on this that I KNOW you’d get a kick out of, Ian. Our house had a screened in porch at one point that is now a finished room, and it turns out that most people have given up their front-of-the-house porches and focused on their backyard.
    Why? Air conditioning.
    It turns out that people no longer want to eat dinner on their porch in the summer when it’s 82 degrees. They uses to want to because it was 95 degrees inside, but with AC, they’ve gotten rid of the house front porch entirely, and devoted their energies to creating a back yard room, with a fence and a separation from their neighbors.
    But a child changes all of that. I would say that if I stood on my roof, I would be within a baseball’s throw of a dozen families who know me and my kid. But Queens is like that, at least as much as Carrboro was, where I didn’t know any of my neighbors.

  17. ChrisM

    The answer is a big no. But it has improved a bit since having kids.
    Today there is so much more movement and commotion in life. A generation or two ago, we were more likely to be part of a family with children living in the same house for many years. All the kids played and grew-up together in the neighborhood. The parents hung-out together, especially in the summer before air conditioning sealed us off. The men worked during the week, but were around in the evenings and on weekends. Mothers did not work as much and thus spent more time with socializing with neighbors. These days, men and women will know their co-workers better than their neighbors since they spend nearly all of their waking hours with them. The kids are being driven around to organized sporting and lessons the next town (or county) over. I just want to chill with my family — maybe walk to the park and play some ball.

  18. Rebecca

    I have lived in Orange County (CA) tract housing for 6 1/2 years. We lived in this house for 2 years before I ever SAW the child next door. I heard her playing the piano, but truly never laid eyes on the kid!
    Our neighborhood is about 50% Asian, and I have found that the cultural and language gaps are wide. I made the effort to try to get to know my neighbors when we first moved in, but other than waving hello on occasion, we do not interact.
    My 10 year old is one of the few kids who is allowed to ride his bike around the ‘hood unsupervised. Oh – and it’s a gated community in Irvine – the safest city in America of over 150,000 people according to the FBI for 5 years in a row. It could not be safer here!
    It seems that the stereotypes about kids being drilled on academics and music are pretty true around here. Many of my son’s friends go to Chinese, Japanese or Korean school on Sunday afternoons. It’s just the norm around here. It makes me sad that so many of these kids are not allowed to just be kids. They need down time!

  19. Emma's Big sis

    If you don’t know your neighbors and would like to, get a dog. I’ve lived in our Norman Rockwellesque Portland neighborhood for 13 years. We got a puppy about 4 months ago and I swear I’ve met more neighbors in that time than in the past 13 years. We have kids, and that’s a good way to meet people, but a puppy appeals to every type person, young or old. When people find out she’s a Portuguese Water Dog, that really gets the conversation going.
    We’ve lived behind the same person for 13 years and just had a conversation with him this past spring when we had to replace the fence, which I can also attribute to the puppy.

  20. Ian

    Hey wife! I know we know our neighbors here, but when I said “for many years”, I meant when I lived in the East Village, and then with you in the West Village, where we slept inches from other people through the walls and had no idea who they were, and wouldn’t be able to pick them out in a police lineup for a gajillion dollars.

  21. Rebecca

    I just finished reading all the comments from yesterday, and found them very interesting. My kids were all vaccinated on schedule and had no problems. Living here, I feel like we are constantly exposed to people from 2nd world countries who may be carrying diseases for which they are not vaccinated – so not vaccinating wasn’t an option for me. If you live somewhere with a less mobile population, I understand questioning the necessity of the vaccines, but I would never gamble with my children’s lives on it. Anyway – my kids are in the herd!

  22. Caitlin

    I think the anti-vaccine thing has something to do with the modern parental desire to control everything possible, the fading of the specter of infectious diseases from most young parents’ minds and our collective cultural memory (vaccines have become a victim of their own success), and heuristics — essentially mental shortcuts that can lead to errors. But I could talk about that at length and I’ll spare you all.
    As for neighborhoods, I’ve been so impressed with Baltimore, despite its gritty reputation. It’s known locally as “Smalltimore” and it’s true. We’ve met more people in Charles Village in the last 11 months than in five years in LA. It’s unpretentious, friendly, and our neighborhood has big trees, wide sidewalks, front porches, and a shared common space where the neighborhood kids play. We even have a neighborhood outdoor movie at the common space every Friday night in the summer where people bring food to share. It’s great. There are a lot of other Hopkins-affiliated people from the school of public health and medical school living here so there’s a overlap for me between school, families from our daycare, and home. When I locked myself out the other night we found friends having dinner at the restaurant around the corner and I left my daughter with them for an impromptu after-dinner playdate while I figured out how to get in.
    I’m going to miss this when we return to LA, though at least we have a head start by moving next door to friends of Ian & Tessa’s. And maybe Venice will be a little more neighborly than our old apartment building.

  23. bridget

    i know the people in my building (in brooklyn). i know some of the people on my block to say hello to. i used to know the people who lived in the townhouse diagonally from us, but they live mostly in LA now (smile).
    as has been said – having kids changes everything. i know more people in park slope now than i ever really thought i cared to. but more importantly, i am just more stitched into the fabric of the community what with the knowing of storytimes at the library, free days at the botanic garden, sing-a-longs at perch, etc… i also feel like i generally understand the experiences of many of my neighbors because we now share a very common characteristic.
    in contrast to the conventional picture of charm and neighborliness of small-towns, it seems urban communities foster this much better these days. in suburban and exurban developments people just seem more isolated from everyone else around them or have ways to keep it that way. i know i probably would be! in nyc you are forced to come face-to-face with a variety of characters. i also think part of the social compact was broken in the 80’s as more free-market economic principles became translated into general operating philosophies. noblesse oblige certainly seems waaaay outdated.
    the vaccination topic was really fascinating to me too. i have seen this debate bubble up multiple times on the park slope parents list. for me it raises questions like: when was it that people started equating their own research skills or gut feelings to the knowledge of a trained medical doctor (even one that has pharmacy samples in his/her office!)?

  24. Neva

    Know all our neighbors. Best thing about living in CH – great diversity of cultures and backgrounds, if not economic diversity.
    Having kids definitely made us more involved with the neighbors and I think, at the risk of sounding very 1950s, working less than full time made me notice and get to our neighbors more. The neighbors and kids I don’t know well are the ones with parents who both work full time and their kids are at after school programs until 6pm.
    I believe that the two parent full time worker family has added too much stress and provided too little time for establishing a sense of community or socializing with neighbors.

  25. Val

    The vaccine thing is so terrifying because there’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t element. But when I saw Dr. Bernadine Healy on CBS News (she’s the former head of the NIH) and read Robert Kennedy Jr.’s article, Deadly Immunity, in Rolling Stone (he has some connections to get information), it gave me serious pause. Then when I thought, if the SEC is supposed to be regulating banks and lending, what makes us think the FDA is regulating pharmaceutical companies? What do you think of this?
    It scared me and made a lot of sense, Jenny McCarthy aside…

  26. Scott

    I live in a semi-bedroom community in New England – Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I’ve lived in two different houses in Longmeadow – in each case I not only knew the names of my immediate neighbors, I conversed with them on a regular basis (nothing heavy – but beyond mere pleasantries). My parents just moved to town from Virginia and already know all adjacent neighbors by name (including across the street). This town has been described as a pretty special place, so my experience within the town is much more the norm than the exception. Beyond immediate neighbors, we have made dozens of close friends in town – before and after we had our son.
    The town defies any strong stereotype – other than being darn near homogenous in color (white) and among the most affluent communities in the immediate area – say a 50 mile radius.
    Guess we are just lucky – or at least I thought so until I read all of the posts here. Maybe the people attracted to this blog are just friendlier than the average?

  27. scruggs

    I live in the burbs of Charlotte in a semi-Stepford 1/4 acre lot in a somewhat cookie cutter, planned development of 600 homes. Luckily, this is a great setup for knowing your neighbors. Not only do I know their names, but I know where they are from, went to school, work etc. Everyone gets along so well and most Friday nights, and many weeknights in the summer, it becomes an impromptu happy hour where all of the parents hang out while the kids play. I think having kids does facilitate this; within the 15 houses on our block, there are 26 kids who are mostly under 10 yrs old. The 3 couples without kids will also hang out on occasion, though they usually just do their own thing. I can’t blame them! There isn’t really much drama either, except for the one mom who is drunk by 5pm and then spends a few hours screaming at her husband in their garage. Also, I think I may be one of the few women on the street that isn’t training for a marathon or triathalon.
    However I will say that we have been here for 2 years, and until last week we had NEVER seen the faces of our neighbors directly across the street. They drive up to the mailbox and get the mail, then close the garage door behind them. The woman just had a baby a few weeks ago, and I met them for the first time last week. So, I guess now maybe they’ll drink the Kool Aid.

  28. jje

    Charlotte urban neighborhood dweller here. Know the neighbors on either side of us very well – not so much the neighbors across the street. Still our street and the ones connecting to it do try to come together – a summer block party and a Halloween gathering. Our neighborhood as a whole is very diverse – yuppies to people who have lived here since Moses was a boy, families and singletons, etc.
    Having kids changes everything, though. I am definitely connected to other moms in Dilworth, as well as the moms in the other uptown neighborhoods – Myers Park, Elizabeth, Plaza-Midwood, and NoDa. We have multiple playdate potentials every day and it’s rare that I don’t run into friends at the usual places – Freedom Park, Trader Joes, Target, farmer’s markets, and local joints like Owen’s Bagels and Revolution Pizza, etc. If you live in the Central area, you tend to stick to Central.
    I love living where we do – it’s a very walkable neighborhood. I can walk to shops, restaurants, Harris Teeter, Target, Trader Joe’s, church, YMCA, Junior League, three parks (including Charlotte’s mini-version of Central Park), drug store, and two gas stations, among other things. Yards are small and houses are close together, but it’s cozy. We have an amazing tree canopy and the houses are gorgeous old bungalows and cottages (okay, and new build McMansions). And we have three big festivals a year (Greek Fest, Dilworth Jubilee and Art in the Park), plus lots of smaller events, especially at Freedom Park.

  29. Ehren

    It’s just another version of NIMBYism. Except now it’s NIMK (Not in my kid.) But it’s the same instinct that made white parents upset about de-segragation and school busing programs.
    I don’t think this is new, though. I think this fierce independence is part of what America was founded on. I just think that the threat level of the various diseases out there has faded enough that the threat of harm from the vaccine seems comparable enough in some people’s heads to raise the issue. When every 10th kid was getting dangerously ill from something and the doctors come up with a cure, they’ll take it if it has major side effects. But now that people feel we’re safe, it doesn’t seem as pressing.
    It’s shortsighted, but I think it’s human nature.

  30. xuxE

    yes, i know my neighbors, and none of them have shot me (yet).
    i guess if the vaccine debate is linked to not knowing your neighbors then it’s because a lot of folks are glued to the computer instead of interacting with people.
    i did attachment parenting for the most part, did vaccines, but i delayed the mmr for my two boys for a year because the age at which they would have got the vaccines according to the normal schedule would have been exactly the same time they would have shown evidence of autism if they had it. i didn’t want to be haunted by doubt about whether the vaccine caused it or not, so i chose to wait until i was sure they did NOT have autism before i did the vaccine.
    my main problem with vaccines is the same as with all western medicine as it is applied on a massive corporate scale. statistics lie and can be manipulated. people are not averages. and a lot of “normal” procedure is put out that way because procedures are scaled for mass application, doctors have to avoid appearance of deviation or risk lawsuits and the cost of truly thoughtful expert care is astronomical. so i think responsible parents HAVE to carry some of the weight.
    and the fact is that when you are looking at something like a vaccine and contemplating the probability of future outcomes for your kid, you are just never going to get enough assurance that NOTHING bad will happen. bad stuff happens all the time in all shapes and forms. the doctor-patient relationship is based on TRUST and i’m realy grateful that our pediatricians are really savvy and on top of all new studies that come out, they spend time to articulate their thought process really well and i am really comfortable with them – i have built up a lot of trust in their judgement. it’s actually so important to me to have these docs for my kids and to have the consistency with them since they were born that i still travel over the bridge and into the city to keep going to see them even though we’ve moved a couple of times.
    but with the whole HMO style 5 minute visits Neva was talking about, how would you ever get to know a pediatrician well enough to establish that trust?
    i think people put more trust in google answers.


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