Longing for Neighborhood

Halloween in Rogers ParkThursday was Halloween. I got a big kick out of walking home from the gym and seeing all the kiddies in their costumes and rain gear (it was raining all day, poor dears), going from house to house bidding the candy-bearing adults an anticipatory “Trick or treat!” The adults would then respond with a hearty “Oh my goodness! Look at your costumes!” The exchange having been made, the little ones in their little voices would thank the candy-bearers, hike up their princess skirts, and move on to the next house.

I laughed to myself as I watched this ritual.  Recently I tried and failed to explain Halloween to my Swedish friends.  How exactly Halloween got to look the way it did, well, I really have to look that up one day.  But as odd as it might seem to an foreigner, Halloween is wonderful.  I was never much into all the ghosts and goblins and other such spooky specter stuff, but Halloween is a fantastic opportunity for both creativity and community. I love how Halloween brings people out into the neighborhood for the simple pleasure of doing something more than a little silly, and to do it together.

A few weeks ago I went to a conference where one of the speakers put a picture of a big, pretty house up on the screen. He asked us to look at the house and figure out what was wrong with it. Something was missing. Josh, my husband, knew what it was right away.  It was a feature he hopes to have in our future home(s). The answer was a front porch. Increasingly in America, the speaker told us, houses are being built without front porches, a trend that would be unheard of even as recently as fifty years ago.  Front porches have for generations been such a critical space in the life of the neighborhood. It’s where conversations happen. It’s where lemonade is served. It’s where the welcome mat goes.  Today, only people who live in older houses and older neighborhoods enjoy this now vestigial feature of community interaction.

Depending where you live, neighbors don’t always act like neighbors; more often, we all retreat into our own little Kingdoms within our own homes.  Interactions with neighbors happen only by accident if at all.  It’s a sad trend, but at least on Halloween, we see a glimpse of what it could look like to walk down the street, greet neighbors, and invite each other in for treats.   Though I live in an apartment, I am fortunate enough to live in an older neighborhood in Chicago (Rogers Park, the greatest neighborhood in the whole city–more on why this is true later) that has lots of front porches. Thursday night I saw house after house with people camped out on their front porches waiting to welcome the kiddos. It was a beautiful thing. Now, you might argue that this is too rosy a view of city neighborhood living. Sure, there are crazy people out there who put razor blades in apples. Sure, there is gang activity occasionally in my neighborhood. But this does not diminish all the good that is present in an engaged community. What I saw on Halloween inspired me and gave me hope that the neighborhood, with all of its potential to bring diverse people together, lives on.

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