CityLab is spending a week talking about the folks next door.
One weekend a year, a big group of my neighbors rents out a bloc of campsites in a state park a few hours away and goes camping together. This started as a getaway for a child’s birthday party, but now it feels more like a corporate retreat—an annual opportunity for the member households to gather, scheme, and strengthen our neighborhood brand. Indeed, once our tents are erected and camps established, the resulting compound is basically just another version of our neighborhood, reconstituted in the distant woods. The same kids play in the road; the same parents busy themselves with homeowner-esque chores and, as soon as it’s feasible, stop to drink beer and make small talk until the sun goes down. When we return to our regular homes on Sunday, our community bonds are renewed.
Plenty of neighborhoods have similar rituals, but mine seems to go at it pretty hardcore. There’s the Memorial Day Picnic, the Pumpkin Carving Festival, the Holiday Gift Exchange, and a whole raft of lesser—but still mandatory—events throughout the year. Soon after we purchased our house a decade ago, it became very clear that we’d signed on for social and civic obligations well beyond the norm. The neighboring would not be limited to banana-bread exchanges and picking up each other’s mail. Together, we’ve welcomed babies and buried parents and partners and pets. On summer evenings, a roving happy hour usually materializes, so we can gripe, epically, about work, family, and life. The block is a clannish confederation, one whose rhythms and rituals echo the gangs of high school. We are, we understand, stuck with each other for a while. We have custom t-shirts.
Neighborhoods are bound by mysterious forces, real and virtual. The latter can be problematic. While I love my neighbors, I still tend to avoid the local listserv, where the advantages of picking up an occasional free hedge trimmer or bit of gossip are often outweighed by the exposure to thunderously petty complaints of various kinds. One can have Too Much Neighbor, and I’ve found that face-to-face interactions are usually sufficient. But in this I may be outnumbered: The social media platform Nextdoor—which aims to be the Facebook of the planet’s block-level networks—now claims to be in 140,000 individual neighborhoods, about 75 percent of the U.S., and it’s recently expanded into the U.K, the Netherlands, and Germany; it’s “the new way to neighbor,” as their tagline goes.
Nextdoor’s masterminds claim that their model can tame the more toxic tendencies of social media: Because users need to use their real names, identities, and addresses (checked by the company’s “neighborhood verification team”), the community is inherently less trollish, they say. “There’s a certain decency that comes with proximity,” says Steve Wymer, the firm’s VP of Policy. Wymer is a committed evangelizer for Nextdoor’s ability to unlock the latent goodness of humanity. He lives in San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, where the app’s penetration is highest—432 individual neighborhoods have claimed accounts, as have the mayor, the city council, and most city services. Wymer sees Nextdoor as performing a vital future role as a conduit that connects citizens to local government, and to each other, like never before. “You’re seeing the kind of civic engagement that the founders would have envisioned,” he says.
I checked in with Shireen Santosham, San Jose’s chief innovation officer, to see if the city shared the company’s enthusiasm. It did, to a measured degree. But in a diverse city with some extreme wealth disparities, relying on a private network like Nextdoor risks further isolating lower-income residents. “There’s a larger question around digital echo chambers that amplify certain voices,” she says. “Some neighborhoods don’t use these tools, and their perspective might not get heard. On balance I’m a big believer in the positive power of technology, but I recognize that people bring their own biases.”
In other words, at the end of the day the people next door—whether online or on your porch—are fundamentally people, with all the associated negatives. This week, CityLab is making its own efforts to understand the modern art of neighboring: We’re exploring the best (and worst) ways to build block-level community, examining the forces that drive neighborhoods together or apart, celebrating the joys and outrages of living together, and trying to understand how a divided nation still manages to get along (mostly) when we truly have to. We’re also devoting one day of our Neighbors series to those who have no roofs over their heads—the more than 500,000 Americans who experience homelessness over the course of year.
This is an apt focus for CityLab’s first week under its new design, since we’re in the process of re-introducing ourselves to you, our readers and fellow community members here in the big noisy neighborhood of urban-issues digital media. Please take a moment to poke around the site, check out the new digs, and enjoy some banana bread. (We even have our own t-shirts.)