Growing up, I lived in the kind of neighborhood in Michigan where everyone looked forward to snow days. On these days, after the dads in the neighborhood would finish plowing their driveways and sidewalks, my dad would be putting snow chains on the riding lawn mower for a different reason. All the neighborhood kids would bring their sleds over to hook up to each other while my dad pulled us around the neighborhood doing dramatic fishtails at every corner. I knew everyone on my street. On the other six streets in the neighborhood I knew at least two or three families on each street.
Now I live in a neighborhood with over a dozen streets in Venice, CA. I am lucky if I know two or three people on just a couple of streets and if it was not for walking my dogs, I would probably not know anyone. My neighborhood is a mix of all kind of people: young and old, professional and creative, black, white and Hispanic, American born and from various international destinations. There are new modern homes and homes that have been here since early 20th century. I often wonder who am I sharing ground with and what stories are waiting to be shared behind the closed doors of the houses on my street.
In a neighborhood very different from mine, author Peter Lovenheim wondered the same. He set out on a journey to search for community and know his neighbors one sleepover at time. Yes, you read that correctly, Peter’s journey included a version of the sleepover most of us looked forward to doing with friends as a child. I recently read Peter’s book, In the Neighborhood and loved every word of it. Peter’s journey is full of thoughtful reflection and delightful moments that I have to admit, might be missing in my life as I speed through a list of things to do and allow myself to get distracted by things that really don’t matter that much when you put them into perspective.
I had a chance to connect with Peter to find out more about the experiment he archived in his book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on a American Street, One Sleepover at Time.
Interview with Peter Lovenheim -
1. One of things I admired the most about your journey to know your neighbors was your willingness to understand them no matter how different they were from you. Was this a conscious decision you made? Did you have to overcome any challenges to do so?
Well, yes, that’s part of the fun of non-fiction writing: you get to spend time with people who are different from you, observe them carefully, and try to convey through the choice of details–speech, dress, behavior, belief, etc.–their character to the reader. In this book, among the people I wrote about who are quite different from me were an 83 year-old retired surgeon, a 32 year-old businesswoman; a single mom struggling with cancer; a mail carrier, and a Turkish-born grandmother whose daughter was murdered.
2. After experiencing people who agreed to your sleepovers and who didn’t, did you find each group shared some common characteristics? If so, what are they?
They all expressed a similar desire to be known by their immediate neighbors and to live with a sense of connection to those around them. The only difference I found was that the ones who didn’t agree to participate in my project just had a greater need for privacy–and since I was writing a book, I can certainly understand and respect that.
3. Have you giving any thought on what motivates decisions pertaining to privacy and how this has changed over the years?
I have not made any study of this, but my sense is that in the last 20 years or so, people have become more open about the facts of their lives–and I think this is attributable both to the amount of personal material on the Internet as well as the proliferation of reality and talk shows on TV where sharing personal information appears normative–but at the same time more protective of their personal space as a kind of haven from all that exposure. In allowing me inside their homes, my neighbors were, in effect, allowing the personal and the private to merge, and it was within that safe and trusting place, discussions of life stories, and private thoughts and feelings became possible.
4. In your process to connect with your neighbors you seemed to learn and appreciate how circumstance and situation affected outcome. For instance, you realized people were more likely to say yes to you if you approached them away from their homes. Are there any other tips that you now understand to be helpful in creating an atmosphere of understanding and connection?
Well, in terms of methodology, what I learned along the way was that it, in terms of being non-threatening to people and slowly building a sense of trust, it did work better if our earlier meetings and interviews took place at a neutral location e.g. a coffee shop, rather than in someone’s home. And something I teach my students about interviewing techniques is that if you want someone to open up to you, it is usually essential that you also open up to them. Therefore, my interviews nearly always resemble conversations in which both I and the other person gradually reveal ourselves to each other–that is what builds trust, understanding, and connection.
5. One of my favorite parts of the book is how you described simply moments of intimacy; for example – seeing someone right after they wake and sharing breakfast with them. I personally believe those moments are taken for granted in the age of “social” technologies and mass media/entertainment. Any thoughts on this?
It was just a hunch I had that waking under the same roof would create a greater sense of intimacy–something I remembered from childhood sleepovers. In fact, it did, and many of the deepest and most intimate conversations took place the morning after a sleepover–and often continued right through the rest of the day.
6. How has your experiment changed your behavior?
It’s just confirmed for me that most people–maybe not all, but a strong majority–desire to be connected with those around them, so when I do reach out to a new person, I’m more confident that in offering a connection, I am offering something that they probably desire.
7. When you move away from Sandringham Road, what characteristics will you look for in a new community?
I will be looking for place where I can feel part of a community–whether it’s an apartment building, a condo development, or an urban or suburban street. I’d especially like to be in a place where I can walk to a coffee shop or a restaurant, as well as to a park or other place where people gather and talk.
8. Are there any other processes for creating and keeping community that you have learned and would like to share?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet with several dozen book clubs who have read my book and this has made me aware of book clubs as a great vehicle for community-building. I’m met with book clubs composed of neighbors, people with similar religious or cultural backgrounds, professions, hobbies, sports, etc. Other than neighborhood associations, which are also great vehicles for community-building, I think book clubs can be a wonderful way to bring people together and create community.
9. Are there any residential planners or builders you have learned of that are passionate about designing neighborhoods suited for community engagement?
There are a growing number of architects and planners designing communities on principles of “new urbanism.” There are also some who specialize in trying to make over sections of existing suburbs–for example, dead shopping malls–to make them into healthier communities.
10. What are some of your favorite highlights from stories people have shared with you after reading your book?
They are mostly variations on: “I live in a high-rise apartment building and down the hall I know there’s an elderly man who lives alone, but in 12 years we’ve never done more than nod in the elevator. After reading your book, I was motivated to introduce myself and say that if he ever has an emergency or needs anything, he is welcome to call. I couldn’t believe how grateful he was; I’m only sorry it took me so long to reach out.” I hear a lot of stories like that, and each one is tremendously gratifying.
11. What is next for you?
An empty nest, a move, and I hope a new book project to get started on. A topic that intrigues me is attachment theory, and how our earliest relationships as infants and children affect our future relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners, as well as how we relate to work, institutions, religion, and the state.