As a society, we've become fragmented by ethnicity, income, red state vs. blue; pro-this, anti-that. But we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines. I'm talking about the property lines that too often isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.
That thought first occurred to me in the aftermath of a tragedy on my suburban street in Rochester, New York: a man shot and killed his wife, and then himself; their two young children ran screaming into the night. I knew the couple just a little, enough to wave "hello" if I saw them out jogging together. Later, I learned that on the day she was murdered the wife had feared her husband and had tried desperately to contact her best friend to see if she and her children could stay over that night. What she didn't know was that her friend was out of town on a day trip. And so that evening, when her husband got home and began burning their mortgage papers in the fireplace, she had nowhere to go: despite having lived on our street for seven years, she didn't know any of the neighbors well enough to seek shelter at their homes. Within an hour of his return, her husband killed her.
After the funerals, the children moved in with their grandparents and the house was put up for sale. Yet my neighborhood seemed little affected. A family had vanished, yet the impact on our neighborhood was slight. How could that be? Did I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate? Few of my neighbors, I later learned, knew others on the street more than casually; many didn't know even the names of those a few doors down.
Why is it that in an age of discount airlines, unlimited cell phone minutes, and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don't know the people who live next door?
I began to wonder: what would it take to really get to know my neighbors? Not just what they did for a living and how many children they had, but the depth of their experience and what kind of people they were?
And what would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I remembered childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. Sitting around another family's breakfast table, suddenly people who previously were just "my friend's mom," or "my friend's older sister," became real and I could see the relationships between family members. Would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their own houses?
I'm excited, and a little anxious, about my book, "In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time," being published on April 6. For nearly seven years, I've lived this story: approaching neighbors and asking if I could sleep over. Surprisingly, more than half said yes. Eventually, I met a woman just three doors down who was seriously ill with breast cancer and in need of help. My goal shifted: could we build a supportive community around her--in effect, patch together a real neighborhood?
I'm excited because after so many years I can share this story, but I'm anxious, too, because I don't know how the book will be received, or even how the neighbors I wrote about (with their permission), will feel about seeing themselves portrayed in print.
I hope they will like their portraits well enough and feel the trust they put in me was not misplaced. I hope, too, telling this story will bring something positive out of my neighbor's tragedy, and also help erase some of those invisible lines that separate not only us, but communities everywhere.