Monday, September 13, 2010

Block Party


One of the problems with moving to a new state every few years is that by the time you get to know your neighbors, it’s time to move on. We were in Washington D.C. for just a year. By the time we left we knew the people who lived in the six houses we could see from our front door. But we didn’t know them well, just a quick greeting when we saw them outside, or a ring of their doorbell with little ones dressed in Halloween costumes.

Utah was another story. For three years we slowly came to know the residents of every house on our short street. By the second year we were hosting the yearly block party. We figured it was a good way to get to know the people around us and since our driveway was smack dab in the center of the street, we were the logical ones to sponsor it. The last one we hosted, just weeks before we moved far away to New York, was an all day event.

Barbeque grills lined the driveway. Long tables were placed along our curb and stacked high with every kind of picnic food you can imagine. The kiddy pool in the middle of our yard was constantly full of revolving toddlers and big kids. Kids of all sizes chased each other around the food tables, grabbing bites to eat whenever the mood struck.

Adults lined up their lawn chairs in the middle of the street and caught up on the latest neighborhood gossip (one of our neighbors was a police officer and conveniently arranged to have our street blocked off for the day). It was a great time to see some folks who usually only got a quick wave from the driveway as they hurried into their houses after work each day. It was nice to stop life for a day, and reconnect with the people who shared our corner of the world.

Just when the tradition was getting comfortable, we packed up the moving van and headed East. After months of searching we finally found a house we could call home. Then came a year of renovations and figuring out this other coast lifestyle. My days were full of finding new doctors, figuring out how the whole heating oil thing worked, and tracking down a guy I could trust who could fix our worn out minivan.

When we finally came up for air, about a year after moving in, we realized it was time to get to know new neighbors. We had a great head start. In a nice twist of fate, the families on each side of us joined the neighborhood when we did. All of our houses were on the market at the same time, all of them sold at the same time, and all of us moved in on the same day. We had at least two families down, and it was time to branch out.

It’s hard to get to know neighbors. Each street has its own dynamic - long term residents who can tell stories about each house, retracing the past thirty years, and newer residents who have rarely shown their faces. Some people are very shy about reaching out to new neighbors and some can’t wait to learn new names and recognize new faces.

I bought four new lawn chairs and set them out in front of my house. The goal was to sit outside more often and hopefully catch some neighborly waves and friendly ‘hellos’.

Then we had a new addition to our street. A young couple bought a house very close to ours and I happened to catch the wife out on a walk one afternoon. In our brief talk she mentioned how she’d like to have a little get together, to meet more neighbors. A light bulb went off in my head. Block party. Maybe it was time again. In this new state, on this new street. Time to start the tradition all over again.

I approached two others from our street, who agreed it was a great idea, and we decided if it were to be, it was up to us. The four of us met in the lawn chairs and sorted out the details. It didn’t have to be hard. Everyone had something to offer. Plastic tables, lawn chairs, name tags, paper plates….between the four of us, we could do this thing without a lot of work.

We picked a date and printed out flyers. We assigned each person a list of supplies to bring. And we watched the weather forecast closely. In the end about 30 neighbors showed up, not counting a yard full of kids. Not a bad turn out for a block of people who have not all gotten together in over 20 years. We had people from each corner of our neighborhood and all ages, from retirees to toddlers. Everyone brought food and good conversation and when the sun went down we were hardly ready for it to end. Within minutes all the food was packed away and chairs picked up.

We’d actually pulled it off, and everyone seemed to have a good time. And it was definitely worth it. It can feel like a lot of work to get to know the people who live around you, but it comes with a great benefit.

The next time the snow flies and knocks out the power, I know who lives where, and I’m not afraid to go knocking on doors to see who needs help. Because after this weekend, when we all met in the driveway, I don’t think of these people as strangers any longer. Now that we’ve shared potato salads and brownies, they’re really and truly my neighbors.

Not just people I share a street with, but people I actually know.

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