Katie and Dave were new to the neighborhood and wanted to organize a fast, inexpensive, and effective event where they could get to know as many people on their block as possible. They used their home computer to print out flyers announcing a Sunday afternoon pot luck and knocked on all the doors within a two block radius. Sunday arrived and they put a couple of folding tables and lawn chairs out on the street in front of their house. Then they waited. Much to their delight forty people arrived each bearing a covered dish “church basement style” along with assorted beverages. Since it was early October there was an embarrassment of delicious fresh produce from everyone’s garden. As more people poured in more tables, chairs, and food materialized. There were guitars on hand. Children played. Dogs scampered. The event was wildly successful. No one wanted to go home as the sun set so lanterns and candles were brought out to keep the event going a little longer. As people inevitably drifted home they took their items with them so there was minimal clean up for Katie and Dave that night.
I thought about why this particular event was so enthusiastically attended. Was it Katie and Dave’s personal charm and powers of persuasion? Was it the culture of this particular little town in the California wine country? Did it have something to do with the physical design of the immediate neighborhood? Was it the time of year? I’m not sure how anyone would go about quantifying all the variables. But I do know that I’ve lived in other parts of the country in other kinds of neighborhoods where this sort of thing simply never happened. Ever.
The benefits of these small seemingly unimportant community events is often underrated. Most people have at least a modest relationship with the people who live immediately next door or across the street. You might not be friends, but you at least know them by sight and have some idea of what their names are and what sort of work they do and so on. But five or six doors down? Or around the corner? For many people it gets pretty fuzzy. Knowing your neighbors is one of the best ways to improve the safety and security of your block since everyone knows who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s what the late Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” and it makes all the difference.
I wonder about all the HOA restrictions and municipal regulations out there across North America. How many rules would this lovely block party have broken in most locations? How much time and committees would have been engaged to organize it through the proper channels? No one applied for a permit. There was no liability insurance. The food wasn’t prepared in an inspected commercial kitchen. There was no liquor license. It wasn’t even organized or coordinated beyond the basic invitation, although somehow exactly the right proportion and amount of meat, salads, side dishes, beer, wine, implements, and furniture all appeared right when they were needed.
I have friends and relatives who live in suburban subdivisions where everyone comes home, pushes the clicker, and rolls into the three car garage without ever setting foot outside where they might have some casual interaction with the people on the block. I also know people who live in high rise apartments and rejoice in the fact that they will never have to get any more intimate with their neighbors than a forced smile in the elevator. Not everyone wants “community”. Some people genuinely prefer anonymity. There seem to be many more places where these folks can be happy. I prefer the messy conviviality of community.