Friday, March 18, 2011

In the Neighborhood

In an upscale neighborhood in Rochester, New York, on February 29, 2000, a man killed his wife and then himself as their children fled to the next-door neighbors' house.

Peter Lovenheim, author of In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, says in his introduction, "Though the couple -- both physicians -- had lived on our street for seven yeas, my wife and I hardly knew them.  We'd see them jogging together.  Sometimes our children would carpool.  Some of the neighbors attended the funerals and called on relatives.  Someone laid a single bunch of yellow flowers at the family's front door, but nothing else was done to mark the loss.  Within weeks, the children had moved with their grandparents to another part of town.  The only indication that anything had changed was for FOR SALE sign on the lawn.

"A family had vanished, yet the impact on our neighborhood was slight.  How could that be?"

Lovenheim decided to find out how that could have happened and if he lived "in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate."  For him, it meant meeting his neighbors, spending time with them in their homes and daily lives, even spending the night, in an effort to get to know who they were.

And so he arranged his first sleepover. Dr Louis Guzzetta was the father of Lovenheim's childhood friend. Lou welcomed him into what he considered his boring life ("My life is zero," Lou told him), now that his wife had died and he was retired from his rigorous job as a surgeon, and a genuine friendship grew between these two men.

Not everyone he approached wanted to develop a relationship with him, much less have him spend the night.  But the several people he got to know firsthand gave him insight into community in general and his own neighborhood in particular.  Over the months and years that followed, a spirit of camaraderie developed on Sandringham Road, at least among some of the neighbors.  And this book tells the story.

But it wasn't just by knocking on doors or spending the night that Lovenheim came to better understand community.  He rode with the mail carrier and the newspaper delivery man; he spent time with a woman who had walked daily on their street for over 40 years, even though she didn't live there; and he met on several occasions, with the parents and brother of the doctor who had been shot.

I found this book to be fascinating maybe, in part, for the same reasons I studied Sociology in college: I want to know how people relate to one another and how societies function.  But I also enjoyed the care with which Lovenheim did his research, his genuine interest in the lives of those he interviewed, and the growth he experienced in this pursuit.

The epilogue includes an update on the people Lovenheim got to know and highlights several neighborhoods around the country which are successfully bringing people together.  In our 21st-century world where people can so easily get lost even when surrounded by others, it is refreshing to know that neighborhoods still matter.

1 comment:

Joan Husby said...

I think with fondness of the community in which I grew up. We met on election days in the old schoolhouse or at the bookmobile; shared potlucks and summer picnics; played baseball, old and young together; discussed politics over coffee. we weren't all one big happy family, but we knew each other and looked out for each other. So glad to read your book review and realize people still want that kind of community.