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Why Won't You Be My Neighbor?

A third of Americans say they've never interacted with the people living next door.

Shutterstock.com/Winnond

Before moving out of my parents’ house, I had been living in the same neighborhood for almost 10 years. But if you were to ask me for the names of all the families next door, I couldn’t tell you.

Turns out that I’m not alone. Few Americans today say they know their neighbors’ names, and far fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis. Pulling data from the General Social Survey, economist Joe Cortright wrote in a recent City Observatory report that only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.

In a separate 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, researchers found that 43 percent of Americans know most or all of their neighbors. But nearly a third said they know none by name.

“There used to be this necessity to reach out and build bonds with people who lived nearby,” says Marc Dunkelman, a public policy fellow at Brown University who studied the shift in American communities for his 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor. That was particularly true in the 1920s through the 1960s, when social tension ran high due to issues like the Great Depression and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“There was this sort of cohort effect, in which people … were more inclined in many cases to find security that existed in neighborhoods,” he says. “They depended on one another much more.”

(City Observatory)

Think of personal relationships like the rings of Saturn, Dunkelman says. The inner rings represent our most intimate relationships, the middle ones are relationships with neighbors and people we’re familiar with but not close to, and the outer rings are relationships with those we’ve met over common interests. During the bulk of American history, he says, we invested a lot of time in those middle rings.

But things have changed. Dunkelman hesitates to give any one reason, but his working theory is that Americans today have limited social capital—time and attention—and more ways to spend it. “The reason, in many cases, that we were connected with our neighbors was because we couldn’t avoid it, we couldn't get along without it,” he says of the past. “We’re now able to be closer in touch with the people we love most.”

So it’s not that we are making an active decision not to talk with our neighbors. We just prefer to spend our precious time texting friends, Skypeing family, chatting on online forums, or even spending time alone with Netflix. (Cortright’s report notes that we spend 19 hours a week watching TV, up from 10 hours in the 1960s).

The way cities or neighborhoods are designed also might have something to do with the decline in neighborliness. “We live in more sprawling communities, where people are literally living further from one another,” says Cortright. In the 1950s, he writes, half of residents in the 20 largest metro areas lived in the principal city. Today, only 1 in 5 does.

Many have moved to suburbs, where living spaces have become more private. There’s been a boom in gated communities, which were designed to keep people of differing backgrounds out. And many spaces that brought communities together, like pools and gyms, have gone private. (There are about 5.2 million private pools today, compared to the 2,500 in 1950, according to the report.) Plus, living in suburbs means we’re commuting more—alone.

All this means that Americans are growing farther apart and talking less with people who have different opinions. “It used to be that even if you lived in an enormously conservative area, you would meet some liberal college professor who was worried about some progressive cause,” says Dunkelman. “In those everyday interactions that you would have, you might not be convinced they were right, but you’d begin to understand that they have a legitimate point of view.”

But one of the very things that led to this decline in neighborliness may be key to reversing the trend: technology.

Dunkelman points me to a social networking site called Nextdoor. It’s like Facebook, but instead of connecting with existing friends, it connects you with people in the neighborhood. You can discuss community issues, ask for local recommendations, or even organize events with the people you see every day—something that the site’s founders felt was lacking back when they created the company in 2011.

“People were relying on social networks more and more, but there was this huge gap,” says Nextdoor co-founder Nirav Tolia. “There wasn’t a social network targeting an absolutely essential community: the one in which we live.”

The website has gained popularity over past few years, attracting people in more than 70,000 neighborhoods across the country. “People do want to connect with their neighbors,” Tolia adds. “We don’t have to force you [to have] something in common with your neighbors; you already do by definition.”

Top image: Shutterstock.com/Winnond

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