Matilija Press
Book Titles

Published Article
by Patricia Fry

Lifestyles Plus – 2000

8 Ways to Improve Your Neighborhood

Most of us, who grew up before the 1960s, know the joys of living in a neighborhood. As children, this was our playground and the neighbors were our friends. When we became parents, our neighborhood was our sanctuary and the neighbors our support system.

How would you describe your neighborhood today? Do you know everyone on the block? Do you feel safe and secure in there? Is your neighborhood comprised of a community of people working together toward a common goal or individual families living independent lives? Unfortunately the latter characterizes many neighborhoods today. Why?

  • We’re a transitory population. We move from place to place in search of a better lifestyle. We don’t stay anywhere long enough to know our neighbors and we hesitate making new friends in order to avoid the pain of the inevitable good bye.
  • We don’t stay home. Many neighborhoods are virtual ghost towns during the week because, while the children are in school or daycare, the adults are at work. When these families come home after a busy day away, the last thing they want to do is socialize with neighbors.
  • We don’t trust as easily. We build high fences and cultivate thick hedges around our property to discourage even neighborly intrusion.

Do you dream of living in a neighborhood like the one you remember as a child? Here are some ideas for creating a supportive and peaceful environment in your neighborhood.

Reach out.

Sally and Brad do not feel a sense of community in their neighborhood. “It’s where we live, but we live there alone,” says Sally. “Although we have neighbors, we don’t know them. Everyone pretty much keeps to themselves which is okay with us because we don’t like some of the things that go on around here.”

This couple can take steps to change the atmosphere in their neighborhood. They can go out of their way to speak to their neighbors. They can offer to help someone in need. Instead of complaining about problems occurring in the neighborhood, they could try to do something about them.

For example, they could talk to the parents of the kids who play their music too loud every day after school. They can ask the police department for help in discouraging speeding on their street. They might help the teens to organize a hobby club or Bible study group for the children who are home alone after school. If young skateboarders are creating a problem, Sally and Brad could work with neighbors to build a skateboarding area for the kids.

Fear often keeps us from reaching out. We’re afraid that if we let someone know us, they will take advantage of our privacy or generosity. This was the case for Donna. She said, “I see some of my neighbors at mass on Sunday, but I avoid talking to them. If I encourage them, they might feel that they can come over anytime they want. I work at home and can’t tolerate interruptions.”

What Donna and others don’t consider is that the blessings in befriending their neighbors may far outweigh any of the negative outcomes they can imagine.

If you want to be a part of a friendlier neighborhood, take the initiative.

  • Speak to your neighbors.
  • Express an interest in something he or she values, a prize rose or a weed-free lawn, for example, or comment on the good manners their children use when they come over to retrieve their soccer ball from your yard.
  • If one of your neighbors attends your church, offer to drive them next Sunday.
  • Invite a neighbor over for ice tea one warm afternoon or plan a neighborhood gathering for everyone on your block.
  • If you see suspicious activity around a neighbor’s property, tell him about it.

Get involved.

About five years after we moved into our rural neighborhood, things started to change. It was no longer the quiet, peaceful neighborhood we had chosen to live in. Teens were running amuck two houses south of us and just to our north, a known criminal entertained his friends. Troublemakers from other parts of the community converged upon these two houses almost every day. We were subjected to crude language and loud music. Neighbors’ cars were being tampered with. There were fights and rowdiness at all hours. No one complained to the parents or authorities for fear of retaliation.

And then one summer afternoon, gun shots rang out across this once quiet neighborhood. Right before our eyes, a policeman, answering a domestic disturbance call, was killed by a drug-crazed man. This was the last straw. Several neighbors expressed an interest in banding together and we formed a Neighborhood Watch group.

We invited law enforcement experts and other professionals to inform and educate us as to our rights and recourses. People came to our meetings as strangers to complain and left with neighbors’ phone numbers and solutions to their problems. Suddenly, we felt more connected, more empowered and ready to make a difference in this neighborhood.

With the support of the police department, we reported every violation of curfew, every disturbance and every suspicious activity we observed in our neighborhood for the next few months. Warnings were issued, firearms were confiscated, stolen cars were recovered and arrests were made. Today we have our neighborhood back. Why? Because the residents in this neighborhood got involved.

Fighting crime is just one reason to get involved in your neighborhood. Another is safety. Neighbors who know one another are more apt to help each other in a time of crisis. In a natural disaster, for example, when everyone is prepared and willing to help one another, lives and property can be saved.

One of our neighborhood watch meetings was dedicated to earthquake and Y2K preparation. While each family was instructed to anticipate and plan for their individual needs, we also pooled some of our resources. One family agreed to serve as first aid headquarters in an emergency. Another couple offered their generator-operated motorhome to those who might want to hang out should we lose power. We extended an invitation to neighbors who wanted to hover around our fireplace on cold evenings if we were without power.

While we didn’t need these resources for Y2K and we haven’t had the big earthquake yet, our neighbors’ willingness to get involved blesses this neighborhood in large and small ways everyday. As an illustration, last year, I planned a weekend trip. I mentioned to my neighbor, Tami, that I was leaving my four kitties home alone—safely inside the house with plenty of food and water. She insisted on peeking in on them, giving them fresh water and cleaning their sandboxes so they wouldn’t feel completely abandoned. I thankfully agreed.

That afternoon, when she opened the door to my home, she smelled the odor of gas. She quickly called for her husband, who discovered a leak behind the stove and promptly shut off the gas valve. I have no doubt that these caring neighbors saved my cats’ lives that day.

To get involved with your neighbors:

  • Note their habits. In Palm Springs, CA, a woman’s life was saved because someone observed that she wasn’t following her usual daily routine. When a neighbor checked on her, he found her unconscious on the floor.
  • Let a neighbor know when you will be gone for a day or more. We always tell our next door neighbor, Robert, when we’re going away. One time, while we were out of town, he spotted water running out from under our garage door. He investigated and discovered that the hose from the washing machine had burst and was spewing water everywhere. Just think of the mess we would have come home to if Robert hadn’t been willing to get involved.
  • Offer to watch your neighbors’ homes when they’re away.

Make a connection with your neighbors.

Barbara was awakened early one morning by the sound of her dog barking. She looked outside and saw someone tampering with her neighbor, Jim’s car. She flipped on the outside lights, turned the dog out into her yard and the thief promptly ran away. If Barbara hadn’t known something about Jim’s habits, she might not have bothered reacting. She could have chosen not to get involved at all. If you live in a neighborhood where at least some of the neighbors feel a connection to one another, you automatically watch out for each other.

How can you connect with neighbors?

  • Neighborhood Watch is a good place to start. Many cities have volunteers who work with neighborhood leaders in setting up these programs.
  • Create a neighborhood directory for each resident.
  • Discuss emergency measures with your immediate neighbors.
  • Be aware of elderly or disabled neighbors who might need special attention in case of emergency.
  • Visit new neighbors and give them your phone number in case they need help with anything or want information about community services.

Be considerate of others.

Be the kind of neighbor you want to have. If you have a problem with a neighbor, talk to him or her about it. In our neighborhood, we had a barking dog next door to us and an aggressive dog across the street that was always running loose. When we spoke to the neighbors about the barking dog, they immediately began working with the animal until they found a solution. They discovered that the only way to keep him quiet was to take him on frequent walks during the day and to put him in the house at night. They do this now religiously and we let them know how much we appreciate their consideration.

The couple who let their aggressive pit bull run, were not so compliant. We eventually had to call Animal Regulations. As it turned out, there had been so many complaints against this dog that they removed it from the home permanently.

How can you be a considerate neighbor?

  • Keep your yard neat and tidy.
  • Keep your animals to yourself. Your pet should only be allowed to invade your own space, no one else’s.
  • Maintain peace and quiet. Don’t run machinery early in the morning or late at night. Don’t play loud music. Inform your neighbors when you’re planning a party. If they know what to expect, they will tolerate it better. What time will it start? When will it end? Adhere to this schedule for your neighbors’ sake.

Be generous.

We seem more inclined to notice the things that irritate us about people. “They don’t keep their leaves raked up.” “He let’s his trash barrels sit out front for days.” “I hate it when she parks that old car in front of our house.” “Their dog is out running around all the time.” Rather than complaining to the rest of the neighborhood about these annoyances, see if you can do something about them.

Offer to help repair the gate where the dog is getting out, for example. If an elderly couple leaves their trash barrels out, put them away as a friendly gesture. I often rake my neighbor’s leaves along with mine when I’m cleaning up the street easement in front of our homes. She does the same for me occasionally.

There’s a woman in California who deserves a neighbor-of-the-year award. She has taken it upon herself to run errands and deliver the mail to all of the elderly and disabled residents living in a nearby mobile home park.

Brenda likes to share the fruits of her garden with her neighbors. Every summer, she delivers bags of homegrown plums to families up and down the block.

A few years ago in Lori and Mark’s neighborhood, everyone took pride in their homes and kept their yards up, except for one family. “Our next door neighbor never spent anytime in his yard,” said Mark. “It was a real mess and everyone was complaining behind their backs. Finally this couple’s landlord paid them a visit. When he saw the condition of the place, he threatened to evict them if they didn’t clean it up. Everyone in the family began working to clean that place up.”

According to Mark, several of the neighbors encouraged this clean up project by complimenting the family’s efforts, by offering cuttings from plants in their own yards and by loaning them garden tools. Mark even went over and helped the neighbor trim back an overgrown hedge.

“These neighbors have become much more friendly since this happened,” says Lori. “You even see them outside more often and they make it a point to speak to neighbors. Just the other day, when I was out watering, the woman called me over to the fence and gave me a bag of peaches from her tree.”

If you want to know your neighbors in the most positive way, be generous.

  • Take a bouquet of flowers from your garden to a neighbor who has just moved in or who needs cheering up.
  • When you see a neighbor struggling with a project, offer them the help. Just last evening, in our neighborhood, a Hispanic boy was walking up the street pushing his bicycle. A neighbor asked why he wasn’t riding it and he explained that something was broken. The neighbor took a look at the bike, was able to fix it and the boy rode off with a big smile on his face.

Draw neighbors together.

A garage sale offers a good opportunity for neighbors to interact with one another. Another surefire way to meet neighbors is to roll an appliance, a used filing cabinet or an old baby stroller out to the curb on a Sunday with a for sale sign on it. Brian sold an old lawnmower that way and met some of the neighbors at the same time. Linda gave away an old refrigerator and a washing machine to a very grateful family with seven children a couple of weeks ago. She threw in a few articles of her children’s outgrown clothing, too. This family came back the next day with a large bag of avocados for Linda.

Here are some ideas for additional neighborhood activities:

  • A neighborhood potluck or progressive dinner.
  • A play group for preschoolers and their parents.
  • Join together with other parents on Halloween to make trick-or-treating a safe experience for the neighborhood children.

Extend your church affiliation

Find out who from your church lives in your neighborhood and start a Bible study or prayer group in your home. Develop a taxi service to church for the elderly or disabled.

Volunteer in your neighborhood

A successful neighborhood is one where people are available and willing to help their neighbors. In fact, some people have only their neighbors to rely on.

When someone is recovering from surgery or has suffered a loss, do the neighborly thing and arrange for their meals to be brought in, offer to run errands or mow their lawn. When you see someone struggling with a heavy load, offer to help.

You don’t have to be neighborly to live in a neighborhood, but it sure makes life more pleasant and meaningful for everyone involved if you are. Creating a safer, more peaceful neighborhood is a team effort. Do your part.

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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