Welcome Back

January 19, 2023

To have good neighbors, you have to be a good neighbor. And who doesn’t want good neighbors? Maybe Philadelphia Eagles fans, but every else does. So, whatever happened to the welcome wagon? 

I worry that the art of neighboring has been lost. It certainly isn’t what it used to be. I suppose it can be attributed to all the common sources of our blame these days. Covid, cell phones, Joe Biden, gluten. And of course, car culture and suburban sprawl have only helped to exacerbate the situation. 

But honestly, does it matter why our sense of community has diminished, why are we not more neighborly? Will it help us to know the reason we moved away from being more friendly with neighbors and newcomers? I don’t think so. Tastes change, priorities shift, and what might have seemed customary in the 50’s might seem weird and exotic today. But some customs are worth reviving. 

What once was a standard joke when I met someone in a new community, has become a depressing sign of our increasing isolation. It typically goes something like this “Hi, I am Jan, I volunteer with this organization, I am new to town, I’ve only lived here 29 years.” Say what Jan? Mountain ranges aren’t even new after 29 years. 

I once spoke to a woman in Vermont who told me that she had lived in her current community for 60 years, but she wasn’t from there. Hold up, time out. When you live in a place for 60 years, you are from there. You don’t have to add the qualifier that you are from somewhere else. Sure, if that’s important to your identity, great, share it up but at some point, we have to embrace the community we have spent three score calling home. 

Neighborliness and being community-minded are concepts we should work hard to revive. Just because they have faded in popularity, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth bringing back in style. Cooking with local ingredients fell out of favor for a few decades before being brought back from the dead and it’s safe to say, it’s been a positive change. 

I suspect that we are part of the first generation that didn’t learn how to behave neighborly while growing up. Cultivating a sense of community wasn’t something our parents taught us. It was not something they practiced, so how could we pick it up? The boomers were the first generation of suburbanites and they were seeking to escape the evils of being around other people. TV taught them to despise density and politicians scared them away from all things urban. As their children, how can we be blamed for not valuing something we never even knew existed? 

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn to appreciate those we share a community with and figure out how to support one another. It only means we haven’t YET. Collectively, we can help revive the art of being neighborly, show others how to strengthen the fabric of community, and teach the generations to follow us the benefits of fostering more social ties. Why let something that is so integral to our happiness remain hidden away in obscurity? 

Study after study shows that one of the greatest determinants of a person’s happiness is his or her social connections. These days, we cast community relationships aside as being less important than material concerns, but increasingly the science shows we do this at our own peril. Friends make us happy, neighbors make us feel connected, a strong sense of community makes us feel a sense of belonging. The more close social ties we have, the more we feel supported and safe. 

So how can we go about being more neighborly and strengthening the fabric of our community? The simplest way is to do more of your existing activities with others.  Reading a new book? Ask your neighbors if they want to read the same book and discuss it. Feel like having some after-work drinks? Invite a few people you know to join you. Consider what you do on a regular basis and which of those activities would be improved by doing it with other people. You can be sure that other people are doing the same thing and would enjoy having some company. 

People in your town want to hang out with other people, but maybe they aren’t comfortable asking, or don’t know how to get started. Help them out! 

How to help you ask? Make it a point of doing something kind for someone new to the neighborhood. Nothing makes people feel better about their decision to relocate than a warm greeting from the people they are going to share a street with. Whether it’s cookies, a home-cooked meal, or even a “welcome to the block” party, do something that makes them feel like they have just arrived in the best place ever. 

So, why not bring back the welcome wagon? What a silly idea to have abandoned. Community development organizations should revive this concept and it should become a routine part of a year’s work. Bring in the realtors for some help here- and, on a regular basis, welcome everyone new to town with a get-together. Provide the new locals with the need-to-knows. Introduce them to one another and introduce them to the local organizations they should know. This is an ideal to time to introduce service clubs, sports clubs, social groups, volunteer opportunities, and great local businesses. Make it easy for new residents to become good residents. 

Help new residents be the type of residents you want to see in town. We should all want new residents to feel connected and engaged. People that fall hard for their new place will want to do their best to protect it and promote it. There is only an upside in making new arrivals feel like they are an integral part of the community. In making them feel welcome, they will be better community members and better neighbors. 

As soon as someone moves to a new community, they should feel like they are a part of it. It should not take months or years or decades to feel like you belong to your new place. The closer we associate ourselves with the places we call home, the better off our places will be. The more we distance ourselves from them, in terms of our identity, the less we care. There is so much benefit in making people feel a part of their community. 

So let’s revive the art of being neighborly and welcome back the welcome wagon. Let’s let the new people to town know how much we welcome them and appreciate them. Let’s all work to be better neighbors and community members so we can enjoy living amongst better neighbors and community members. It is perfectly okay to be self-interested and do the things we are going to be forced to enjoy for years to come, because don’t we all deserve a few more friends? 

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