Mar
07

Connecting with Your Neighbors

March 07, 2014

Scenic bike rideBennett Weiss grew up in a Pennsylvania neighborhood where parents shooed their kids outside on warm afternoons to cook up their own fun. Little kids played baseball alongside big kids, improvising on the rules as they went along. Adults forged their own bonds with those who lived nearby too.

When it came time to raise their daughter, Weiss and wife Christy looked for a similar place — a friendly street where kids played together and neighbors took the time to get know one another. They found it in Sleepy Hollow, a Glenview neighborhood close to the train station and a tucked-away park.

Since moving there 19 years ago, they’ve enjoyed neighborhood Easter egg hunts, picnics and spur-of-the-moment basketball games. Aside from the fun, though, Weiss knows his neighbors have his back.

When a monster storm cut power to the area and flooded basements six years ago, neighbors worked together to help the hardest-hit. More recently, a next-door neighbor worked overtime to remove a gigantic snowfall from the Weiss drive when the family was out of town.

From building a sense of safety to providing a helping hand, for fun and friendship, neighborhood relationships can be invaluable. In a Harris Interactive survey conducted in 2012 for Nextdoor, a private social network for neighbors, 67 percent of respondents said they felt safer in their home because they knew their neighbors. In the same survey, 47 percent of respondents who knew their neighbors said that because of this, they had no plans to move or sell their home.

Mike Lanza, a childhood friend of Weiss’ and the author of “Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play,” a book about making neighborhoods welcoming places for children to play outside, sees getting to know neighbors as mining resources that exist where someone lives.

When he moved into his Menlo Park, Calif., neighborhood, a nearby homeowner with a somewhat scruffy appearance and a weedy lawn wasn’t necessarily someone Lanza would have pegged as a potential friend. But Lanza, who made it his mission to know everyone on his block, learned the man is an accomplished magician and organic gardener. He now performs regularly at neighborhood birthday parties, and has even given Lanza’s son gardening tips.

“He’s a great neighborhood asset and he’s right here,” Lanza said. “We don’t have to do a search on the Internet for ‘magician’ and drive to a meet-up to find this guy.”

You too may be sold on the benefits of getting to know your neighbors. But if your neighborhood is more ho-hum than humming, how do you build a sense of community?

Walk through a neighborhood. James Votanek, sales support manager with Baird & Warner’s Glen Ellyn office and president of the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors, advises buyers to leave their cars behind and walk a neighborhood to get a closer look at its culture before committing.

“There’s nothing that’s going to do a better job of educating the consumer more than being there,” he said.

Lanza, who wanted a family-friendly neighborhood for his brood, looked for evidence of “kid debris” — scooters, balls and bikes in yards — when identifying an area that might work.

Not every neighborhood will be a good fit, because everyone has a different threshold for interactions with neighbors.

Votanek’s in-laws were empty nesters when they purchased a home in a small neighborhood out of state. After move-in day, they discovered that 23 of 25 nearby homes had children at home.

“That was a neighborhood on fire all the time,” Votanek said. “The sounds of a group of children playing capture the flag at dusk can be music to your ears when you are in a certain stage of life. But when you are trying to quietly read a book, it’s a different story.”

Form a club. Starting a club is one easy way to connect with like-minded people who happen to live where you do. Book clubs are neighborhood staples, but the possibilities don’t end there.

At The Montgomery, a 246-unit condominium building in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, residents forge bonds as they sip chardonnay and sangria. A wine club, formed in 2012, has encouraged discussion and built camaraderie among members, said Terri McAuley, a club member who is also a broker with Related Realty. The club has even given homeowners a place to vet ideas for the building outside of official homeowners association meetings.

Recent events have included a holiday champagne party and a “tasting above the clouds” at Willis Tower.

Tap into technology. Technology, sometimes blamed for distancing people from neighbors, can also be a way to reach out.

John Garrido uses Nextdoor to connect with nearly 200 people in Chicago’s Gladstone Park neighborhood. Neighbors have used the network to find a baby sitter, sell unneeded goods and provide notice about businesses opening in the neighborhood. One resident even found a job, Garrido said, after a neighbor posted a “help wanted” ad.

His favorite use, though, is to transmit safety information. Garrido, a Chicago Police Department lieutenant, has used Nextdoor to warn neighbors about burglaries or other crimes that happened nearby — anything he’s allowed to share with fellow citizens. “People pay more attention to what’s going on when they know their neighbors,” Garrido said. “It increases your concern for other people.”

Get out front. Lanza’s best tip for getting to know your neighbors is also the simplest: Be accessible.

Though his California neighborhood has pleasant weather year-round, when he moved in, he noticed that most people gathered in inaccessible fenced backyards.

So Lanza set out to make his front yard as appealing as possible, with furniture, a fountain and an audiovisual system for playing music and movies.

While organized events are nice, he sees them as a lot of work for minimal interaction. “In general, spontaneous interactions are the most sustainable and organic,” he said. “Block parties are great, but what about the other 364 days of the year?”

Lanza’s plan to create an appealing front yard worked. Dogs and kids found the set-up irresistible, and the Lanzas today know almost everyone who calls this small corner of the world home.

This post was originally published on ChicagoTribune.com on Jan. 31, 2014.

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