THE BLOG
07/19/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

When Neighbors Don't Speak to Neighbors

Moving into a city neighborhood from the suburbs (or country) can be rough. When I moved to Philadelphia's Riverwards 11 years ago from Center City there were no guidebooks to suggest the best way to blend in.

At that time I was the only person from Center City on my block. When the realtor sold me the house she quipped that it was situated in an odd sort of triangle, "not quite Fishtown, not quite Richmond but something undefined in between."

"I like unclassifiable areas," I told her. A friend who helped me move at the time made a prediction: "In ten years, this will become another upscale Northern Liberties. Wait and see."

His prediction is beginning to come true. Across the street an Albanian family has been working feverishly on a huge 4-story house, built from scratch after the smaller original house was demolished. Other neighbors have planted trees, scrub-washed their brick facades or created planter gardens along the sidewalk. The only eyesore on the block is an abandoned house which has been boarded up for almost twenty years. I wrote about this public health hazard weeks ago and pointed out how the house attracts feral cats and possums. The City of Philadelphia seems to like it when boarded up, abandoned houses sit for decades -- until, of course, they collapse, or when someone breaks in and steals the copper tubing and causes a gas explosion.

Ah yes, that's when the city does something about abandoned properties!

At one time my block was a block where people rarely moved but that has changed. Blink twice and you might miss a new neighbor.

Unfortunately, one of the by-products of gentrification is parking problems and the multiplication of No Parking/Two Away Zones.

Some of these No Parking/Tow Away zones stretch the limits of legality. I'm thinking of one house two blocks away that has its backyard framed by a garage-like gate as if there was a driveway inside. But if there's a driveway inside the gate, its invisible. It's just an ordinary backyard that in former years used to house a swimming pool and a work shed; so why the No Parking/ Tow Away signs? The change has caused many here to scratch their heads. And it's got me thinking of putting up a No Parking/Tow Away Zone sign of my own (signs can be purchased at Home Depot or Family Dollar). My reason for doing this could be as simple as: I don't want people with big SUVs blocking the view from my living room window.

Of course I'd never do this, but this doesn't change the fact that lately when it comes to parking, anything goes. Keep putting up questionable No Parking/Tow Away Zone signs long enough and people will obey. It's like group hypnosis.

In an ideal world, neighbors would be looking out for neighbors, whether it's neighbors on my street or the next.

When I first moved here, I was informed by an astute friend that the best way to build good neighborly relations is to make contact with neighbors rather than isolate yourself in your house like an urban Robinson Crusoe. This does not mean that you have to be intimate friends or share everything with your neighbors; it simply means that you should not be afraid of eye contact, be open and willing to say hello or even to have that 2 minute chat on the street.

One should do these things regardless of educational or social differences; income disparities; race; religion; political affiliation, etc. When you live on a small street in a sense you join a small community.

When the area of Fishtown around Girard Avenue began gentrifying many long time residents complained that the new people -- the Center City, suburban and New York newcomers -- never made eye contact with them or said hello. The new residents instead seemed to view themselves as islands and "very different" from the so-called indigenous population.

I can imagine the newcomers thinking: "Why should I say hello to them? We don't even speak the same language!" A simple hello however, is just good manners and not an offer of a lifetime friendship or shared Saturday nights. A "you do not exist" attitude, on the other hand, almost always has a subtle negative connotation.

I have some empathy for the suburbanites who move here and who are afraid to say hello. Let's face it, coming from Ardmore or Bryn Mawr to a tiny Philly neighborhood not far from the El can be a shocking transition. The suburbanite might notice that the people in the street don't speak like them; or maybe they talk too loud or use too many curse words. Of course, if you are really going to be a snob, perhaps it is the perception that "the locals" just aren't, you know, "edu-ma-cated," as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy once put it. If you are "edu-ma-cated," then of course you are superior; you belong to a different class; but no way are you going to stoop so low as to rub shoulders with...riff raff.

I'd like to tell every suburbanite who moves into the riverwards to get to know local etiquette. The only way to get to know the local etiquette is by listening, observing and talking to the people who live around you. Knowing the etiquette of certain Riverward neighborhoods is essential to happy living. And while it may be uncomfortable to go beyond your small universe of like-minded peers, it is a "must do" if you are going to get along.

Last year, on the other side of Lehigh Avenue, a group of suburban college kids moved into a house but made no attempt to get to know the locals who lived around them. It was as if the locals were not there at all.

Then something happened.

The suburbanites hosted a New Year's Eve party and had guests coming in from many different areas. There were a lot of cars and the few parking spaces on the street got taken up early in the evening. Some of the party guests parked their cars directly on the sidewalk in front of a number of houses, certain that this was legal because they had seen people park their cars on the sidewalk before. But had they been aware of neighborhood etiquette they would have known that the people who park on the sidewalk are people who live in the house directly behind the car, not neighbors from another part of the street or around the corner. Although sidewalk parking is technically illegal, neighborhood etiquette says that nobody except the home owner or renter should ever park on the sidewalk in front of a house that is not theirs. This is the golden rule.

I don't need to tell you the conclusion of the parking story except to say that there was a lot of unnecessary pandemonium.

And that didn't have to be....