Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time


In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time
by Peter Lovenheim
Penguin
2010
256 pages

"Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day."
from Sesame Street

As regular readers of this blog know, our family is in the process of moving.  So far, we've visited approximately a dozen houses in various neighborhoods, all of which look nice enough.

With moving, I'm always a bit apprehensive about what types of neighbors we're going to get.  (I suppose everyone is, to a degree.) You see, growing up, my family lived next door to a batshit crazy woman who often referred to me as "monkey-faced," who often shrieked that we needed to turn the wind around because it was blowing into her yard, and who would take Poncho (her annoying as hell Chihuahua) for strolls in our fenced in backyard. 

The police were called on numerous occasions (we still have the meticulous log my father kept of every incident; it's considered a family heirloom at this point), my brother and I were on a first-name basis with all the sergeants and the zoning officer (or whomever is in charge of things like putting up fences), and I'm not exaggerating when I say that it is a miracle nobody was killed.  (Although it wouldn't surprise me if the constant stress of living next door to this witch was a factor in my father's death at 44.)

But despite this wackadoo next door, ours was a neighborhood where we knew one another.  Across the street there was the elderly couple who signed birthday cards to me as "Grandma and Grandpa Yeager" and who consoled my frantic, hysterical mother when I once went missing for several excruciating hours (the result of some parental-child miscommunication rather than foul play).   Next door, there was the socialite with the Doberman Pincher and whose shore home was in the same condo as my friend Meghan's.  And across from her lived the family of our trusty babysitters.

So it was with all this in mind that I picked up Peter Lovenheim's memoir In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover At a Time. 

Sleepover doesn't refer to, say, Peter Lovenheim's daughter spending the night at a friend's house nearby.  No.  It refers to his sleeping over at his neighbors' homes, as an adult.  As in, striking up a conversation or two with a neighbor only known somewhat casually, mentioning that he was writing a book on neighborhoods and building community, and then asking to sleep over as a way to get to know them better.

Now. If you know my husband in real life, you can probably imagine his reaction when I told him the premise of this book.  He was, quite simply, aghast.  There's no way this would happen in our house today.  And indeed, when approached by Lovenheim with this notion of having a sleepover, several of his neighbors turned him down flat.   (In addition to sleeping over for one night, Lovenheim also accompanied his neighbors - as well as his mailman and his newspaper delivery guy - throughout their entire day, coming along on their visits to the local Y, watching them as they siesta'ed during the noon hours, tagging along to workplaces and business meetings ... you name it.)

It doesn't take much to realize that the main (and ironic) reason that The Husband and I would never consider having one of our adult neighbors sleep overnight is because we simply don't know who the hell they are. I know the names of the people immediately next door and their kids. And I know what my other neighbor does for a living (thanks to the FBI showing up at my door) but I'll be damned if I know the guy's name. The always-attired-in-New-York-Yankees-apparel guy who walks his white poodle? No clue. The single dad with the two girls, two doors down? Dunno.  The people two doors down on the other side who moved in a few weeks ago who I think are from Pittsburgh, where we're moving to? I can tell you what they bought the house for (thanks to my studious perusal of the local real estate listings) but we have yet to say hello.

From his descriptions in his book, Peter Lovenheim's neighborhood is similar to the one I'm leaving in regard to interactions between residents.  And unless you are my friend W. who lives in a development with real-live coffee klatsches happening monthly or author Rachel Simon, who writes lovingly of her neighborhood in her own memoir, The House on Teacher's Lane, I'm betting it is similar to yours, too.

In Peter Lovenheim's case, it takes a tragedy - the murder-suicide of a husband and wife living several doors down - to make him contemplate how things might have been different if the wife didn't feel so isolated, if she had a safe place to go in the throes of domestic violence, if someone had noticed something amiss or felt comfortable in giving her the name of a local shelter - if they knew it.  (Ironically, several such things did happen after the tragedy; neighbors offered grieving family members their spare bedrooms while making funeral arrangements, people brought food, and in the immediate hours the young children of the couple were cared for by - you guessed it - a neighbor.)

In the Neighborhood, then, becomes Lovenheim's memoir about his quest to get to know the people on his street.  While chronicling these encounters, Lovenheim gives his reader an often funny and introspective glimpse into the culture of community, about the various reasons why we are so content to "live as strangers," and how and why this dynamic evolved from a time when it was commonplace for neighbors to borrow a cup of sugar from one another.

There are also heartbreaking moments too - such as when Lovenheim learns how his octogenarian next door neighbor Lou needed to call a daughter living 20 minutes away when he found himself temporarily immobile. Or when Grace (a woman who power-walked daily through Peter's neighborhood for 40 years) stumbled, sprained her ankle, and crawled on her hands and knees to the other side of the wide, tree-lined road ... without a soul noticing.

Through what is an easy read, you feel like you get to know Peter's neighbors - and start thinking more about your own - which, I suppose, is kind of the point. You also get the sense that writing this book was a bit cathartic for him. (Some points are repeated more than a few times, and there was a little too much navel-gazing about his personal life, but these are just minor quibbles I have.)  Most of the time, Peter comes across as a genuinely nice and pleasant guy, someone who anyone would be pleased to have as a neighbor.

Yeah, even me.


copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

1 comment:

christa @ mental foodie said...

I have never heard of this book before until someone mentioned it in an online forum. I'd borrowed it from the library but haven't had a chance to read it yet. Hopefully I'll get to soon! We don't even know our neighbours' names... (we waved and said hi and that's about it.)