How to Build a Neighborhood

I wrote this message on a survey about the apartment building where I live in San Francisco about why I am dissatisfied with “knowing and/or socializing with [my] neighbors”:

It’s not the fault of the community as much as it’s the fault of this transient SF culture. My neighbors are in general not very open to friendship. I see people I’ve met at events and they don’t say “hi” or make eye contact. I made one friend, who shortly after moved out. (What did I do? Just kidding.) Even the guy next door, whose bell I rang in the middle of the night because his TV was keeping me awake (he had fallen asleep), doesn’t say boo. I had even left him a note saying “thank you” for being a good neighbor.

People are fearful. That’s the bottom line. They are afraid to get to know a neighbor and then get stalked. They are afraid other people will want something from them. They close their blinds missing the sunlight to keep out the unknown. (My blinds are wide open every day.) But it’s not impossible to change. They need a different approach.

A flyer in the elevator made a valiant effort to bring people together on the [building’s] website. But it seemed too social-media-y for it to be successful. The last thing people want is another social media venue. Maybe it could have worked if every couple weeks, the flyer stated a specific interest of a member. ‘Joe just started a group for tennis. Join him on tennis.[buildingsite].com.’ ‘How many techies live in this building? Take a guess at techcommunity.[buildingsite].com and for a chance to win a latte.’ These flyers need to speak with the neuro-linguistic language that reaches their targets. I know this because I built a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, this way.

A bulletin board might help. Even though a bulletin board is not in [the building company’s] streamlined design, it is the kind of tool this community could use in order for people to become more neighborly. It needs to be near the mailboxes where everyone slows down to get their mail. It can be neat, creative, well-designed, but it should be there if [the company] wants to build a neighborhood. It can even have flyer design guidelines, i.e. postcard, bookmark, or business card sizes only. Dated and approved, numbered and rotated, by [the manager]. It doesn’t even need pushpins. Use picture wire and hanging clamps. It can be cool. It could even be in the garage on the way back into the building from the trash room. (It should also have important information such as the tow company’s phone number for off-hours towing, such as what I needed last week when someone parked in my spot in the middle of the night without asking.)

I realize I am an anomaly among residents. I can’t help that I’m a New Yorker and bring my open window shades with me.

Forget about enticing people with free beer. Just announce a gathering for those interested in building a neighborhood, have some snacks available, and make it BYOB. Then people who are available and interested in having a neighborhood will show up.

Maybe if people were more neighborly, we would heal more.

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