Four years after moving into our first home, my husband and I finally met the woman who lives next door. It wouldn’t have happened without mandated stay-at-home orders—a sad testament to modern suburbia.
Ours is a quintessential suburban neighborhood, with moderate brick and white-paneled houses. Tributaries of pavement lead to cul-de-sacs bordered by family homes. The fenced-in backyards are dotted with shady oak trees, man-made ponds, and giant wooden playsets.
Most families in our neighborhood have young children, so the loud diesel of the school bus marks weekday mornings, tiny bodies hauling oversized backpacks lined up on each corner. Sprinklers water freshly mown lawns, tricycles litter the sidewalks, and American flags flutter above time-worn basketball hoops: a quaint portrait of Midwestern life.
Though the neighborhood might sound idyllic, I have often lamented the absence of a tight-knit community, crooned about in classic country songs, where “everybody knows everybody” and “everybody calls you friend.” Growing up in Indiana, these kinds of lyrics shaped my yearning for closer communal ties, but over the past 40 years, the 1950s-esque vision of happy families nestled within butter-borrowing boroughs of friendly neighbors has vanished in most places.
A culture of loneliness
In his acclaimed book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam found that as people increasingly moved from rural America to cities and suburbs, community connectedness markedly decreased. As far back as the 1980s, ethnographer M.P. Baumgartner had assessed the “new” suburbia to be a “a culture of atomized isolation”—and it’s only gotten worse with the coldly enforced regulations that accompany Homeowners Associations (HOAs) and impersonal complaints fired off in neighborhood Facebook groups, where individuals argue in the comments section but avert their eyes on the sidewalk.
Like most modern neighborhoods, ours has a Facebook group page, and I regularly check the Next Door app—akin to a Facebook for neighbors—for hyper-local conversation or announcements. But aside from the few families in our cul-de-sac, we rarely converse with others. We are hardly alone in this behavior. Pew Research found that only 26 percent of people say they know “most” of their neighbors, a trend that’s been building for decades, aided by technology that allows disappearance en masse into the faux connectivity of virtual worlds. Paired with the hustle of modern life, American community ties have disintegrated.
Before COVID-19, we didn’t have the time to consider this loss. There was homework and karate lessons. There were full-time jobs with 45-minute commutes both ways. There were weekend getaways, game nights with friends from the other side of the city, day trips to the zoo and date nights downtown. We actively avoided marinating in the community of people we’d chosen to live near, simply because it took effort we claimed not to have the time or energy for. It was a waste of the closest humanity. It was only when forced to abandon schedules, cancel lessons, and eliminate commutes that neighbors country-wide really began to see each other for the first time. When an extra trip to the grocery store is a health hazard, you’re much more likely to ask your neighbor to leave an egg or two on the doorstep.
A moment for neighborliness
Until COVID-19, I had seen the woman next door only in flashes, her car careening from the driveway each morning through the cool, dewy air. I knew the neighbors worked a lot—they were rarely home—but only in quarantine was there an opportunity for conversation beyond a daily wave. We made eye contact one night during a happy evening lull, and it felt like a long-awaited invitation to fellowship.
They stood inside their doorstep while we lingered safely down the sidewalk, finally able to ask questions that had been bouncing around in my mind for years. How long have you lived here? What do you do? Where did you live before? I discovered they owned a local nail salon—a business known for demanding long hours—that had been shut down, understandably marked as “nonessential.” I made a mental note to get my next pedicure there and instantly gained a new level of respect for the quiet couple, who were presumably suffering financially. I was surprised to learn they had lived in their house for twenty years, and I mentally wandered back to what I was doing in the year 2000—drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade at underage parties, applying to college, and working at Chick-Fil-A. That was when these neighbors had made their home here, a world away from me.
Prior to our meeting, I had spoken briefly to the husband, who often worked outside in the yard, and had dropped off gooey, homemade brownies with a card conveying gratitude for nice neighbors—the kind who valued a yard with rich, green sod and trimmed bushes studded with milky begonias. They were people I wanted to know, but I had never been taught how to reach out or educated in the value of the time and energy it takes to draw strangers-turned-neighbors into your life. Quarantine was a lesson in benevolence.
It wasn’t just these neighbors, but others too. As I pulled my four- and two-year-old in a worn red Radio Flyer Wagon down the sidewalk for multiple laps, I passed a father and his young daughter riding bikes and playing ball in their driveway. After the third lap, and a trio of waves, I introduced myself. After four years of watching the little red-haired girl from afar, I learned her name and the time of awkward walk-bys was over. I couldn’t help but feel that we should have been saying “hello” all along. With schools closed and parents working from home, it was our chance to greet each other properly—finally.
A few times, our cul-de-sac had a “social distance gathering,” where we set up camping chairs and spaced ourselves appropriately around a firepit, sipping on beers, exchanging homemade masks, and catching up on life. In four years, we’d never gathered in such a way before. Even those families we had already been friends with were more present in our life because their absent commutes and empty schedules left time for pruning the yard, strolling the neighborhood, and grilling on the back deck.
The sidewalks were more traveled, with couples and families moving aside when bikers or singles headed their way. A fresh courtesy accompanied every encounter, and despite our collective troubles, smiles bloomed more easily as each recognized the common struggle—one that would remain etched in the history books of each of our lives.
Back to the neighborhood
The COVID-19 pandemic was unwanted, but the resulting circumstances provided an opportunity to re-evaluate the pace and structure of our bustling American lives. It offered a taste of slow, imbuing our lives with more intentional decisions regarding time and how to spend it, resources and how to impart them, people near us and how to meaningfully engage them.
At a time in our country’s history where community breakdown has peaked—with the loss of church as a central hub, significant decrease in personal and institutional trust, and a growing epidemic of loneliness—we were forced to pause. The pandemic was a tornado amid the larger storm of despair that’s been sweeping the nation for years. It is in crisis and transition, tragedy and change, that people take inventory of their lives and make substantial changes. The time is ripe for restoration. The crisis has deepened faith for some. For others, it has sparked innovation and goodwill. For those like myself, it’s cultivated a deeper appreciation for the people and city I’m lucky enough to live amongst.
Stronger communities—even in the micro-sense of a neighborhood of 25 homes—result in a richer, more connected and vibrant nation. A widening class gap and troubling political polarization in recent years have threatened to irrevocably damage our communal relationships. One of the best ways to crush polarization is conversation. And while dozens of organizations and programs dedicated to fostering more local conversations have erupted in recent years, organic bonds with our actual neighbors are the very best way it can be sown. When we know someone’s story, we empathize and naturally seek out solutions that benefit those others. In this way, making an effort to know your neighbors is actually an important civic duty all its own.
“We’re drawn to each other and our stories and through that, experience oneness. It’s how community is built: layer by layer, struggle by struggle, story by story,” writes Kristin Schell in her book, The Turquoise Table, about fostering neighborliness in the front yard. When we know our neighbors, a little bit of that trust in society that we lost over the years is restored. Those who connect political policies to the lives of real people they know are also more likely to be philanthropic and civically active. These things are vital to a strong, functioning nation, one that can best value and empower its citizens.
Revisiting what is truly essential
The negative consequences of COVID-19 —death, distress, and economic devastation —will be lasting, but the positive community reverberations can also stand the test of time. This time of disruption can bring clarity to our lives, shaping the choices we make moving forward about the things we care about, the company we keep, and the way we engage with society.
“Simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
We’ve been given the opportunity to simplify, distinguish, and probe—things that require time, intention, and pause. Without being forced to cultivate space through COVID mandates, we may never have done so. How much of life was necessary and real, as opposed to additional and superficial, prior to COVID-19’s interference? When did we carve out the time to set eyes on our main roots and cultivate them? Now is the time to employ Thoreau’s timeless wisdom.
We can now move forward, activated, enlightened, and armed with a richer understanding of our neighbors, recognizing how important it is to the growth and betterment of the nation. Even though many of the prior rhythms of life will return, I hope to keep hold of these lessons.
The woman next door is back to working overtime at her nail salon, disappearing once more from the driveaway early in the morning, but she’s no longer just a wave of dark hair in the window anymore—she’s a neighbor, with a name and a story.