Go Out Front

We met a new neighbor this weekend, Benton. “New” in the sense of “new to us”, not in the sense of “new to the neighborhood”: either one of us could have put a rock through the other’s window from our respective front porches for over ten years. (It is a testament to the cordiality of the neighborhood that it has never occurred to either of us to do so, despite our proximity.)

Earlier last week, we met another neighbor, six houses down, with a son roughly the same age as ours, playing in the John Stanford School playground. They were amazed to discover there were other children living on their block.

It brought to mind an essay from the amazing Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs (lent to us by our neighbor Tobin), in which he mourns the death of the childhood as he (and we) knew it:

I could lose myself on vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbor’s yards, on the sidewalks. Anywhere, in short, I could reach on my bicycle, a 1970 Schwinn Typhoon, Coke-can red with a banana seat, a sissy bar, and ape-hanger handlebars. […]

Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map – marked HERE THERE BE TYGERS and MEAN KID WITH AIR RIFLE – that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

We have a map just like that, rolled up and tied with twine, in a drawer in our mind. On it: the cauldron-shaped hill that served as the site of our epic games of “smash-up derby” (point bikes down, meet in the middle); the church wall facing the parking lot where we played Off the Wall (or its rougher cousin, Suicide); the groove-worn track through an anonymous neighbor’s yard, leading to a piece of bent-up fence wire.

That’s all changed now. Chabon, again:

The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations – Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from the doors marked STAFF ONLY. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.

Chabon goes on to tell a story of how, when he moved to Berkeley, he found a nine-year-old girl living two doors down who had lived there her whole life. Two doors in the other direction lived a boy, the same age, who had spent his whole life in the same house, as well. They had never met.

As we’ve moved off the streets and into “safer” realms, we’ve lost track of each other, and it’s a tragedy. We drift like ghosts that can see the world around them, but not each other.

But it wasn’t just happenstance that we met Benton. We recently dug up our front lawn and put in several raised bed gardens. Benton saw us struggling with PVC and clear plastic sheeting and came down to offer some cloche clips he’d made. Had we be in the back, as we’ve been for years, we never would have met, and never would have learned about his paintings or his wife’s trash couture Dick’s burger wrapper sculptures.

We’ve been spending more time out front in general: mornings find us camped on our steps, coffee cup in hand, watching the school kids unload from buses while the Baby Z points and shouts at the passing bicycles (“bike! bike! bike!”). This too, has led to connections: three weeks ago, we recognized Steve, who we hadn’t seen in almost a year, dropping off his daughter. We waved. A week after, he stopped in for a long morning of chatting over coffee, exchanging schemes for CD-spindle-based algae farms and vertical, modular gardens.

And all because we were out in front, where we could see and be seen.

Wallingford, we’d like to meet you. But as long as you’re in the media room, up in your study or even around the back, we can’t. Come on out front! Sit on the stoop, play in the street, lay on the grass. See who happens by.

  1. Nancy M said,

    From Stuart Little, by E.B. White: “In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the backyards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink os sarsaparilla.” (Chapter 13, Ames Crossing)
    Nice piece, Jordan.

    Tue, May 25 at 9:59 am
  2. Jen said,

    My husband, Joe, who has been building a house for the last year, has met a ton of people in the neighborhood.   Our old block in Wallingford used to have a great block party every year.  It might be the only time we saw certain neighbors, but it was great to make the connection.  Maybe we need to have them more often. 

    Tue, May 25 at 2:29 pm
  3. CindyY said,

    Thanks Jordan, great post! Wallingford is certainly a step up from Phoenix, where I grew up. There, the ubiquity of garages makes it even harder to form a community, since you don’t even have to go out into the street before zipping off in your car to who knows where.

    Tue, May 25 at 3:34 pm
  4. Chris W. said,

    I don’t have a front stoop (apt complex at the top of a long driveway) but I have learned that if you stop & admire someone’s flowers or gardening as you walk past their house in the ‘hood, there’s a chance they’ll come out & say hi if they notice you.  Have had some lovely conversations that way, esp. on Sat mornings when people are out working in their yards.

    Tue, May 25 at 4:05 pm
  5. Rebecca said,

    Thanks, Wallyhood.  Great topic.  As a family we’ve struggled with hanging out in our front yard and socializing with neighbors in part because we live on a noisy/busy stretch of an arterial, a steep section of one at that.  Our kids are finally old enough so that we’re comfortable letting them play out front without fear of them darting into the path of the 26.  Baby steps, right?
    Playborhood has some nice nice articles about the intersection of kids’ access to unstructured outside play and community building.

    Tue, May 25 at 9:42 pm
  6. Ben Sanders said,

    Front yard hanging-out is a great way to meet people and socialize (the kids on our block have always known this, as they treat the front lawns as one continuous playspace / adventure space). I installed a flagstone patio last summer to replace the dry hard grass on our west-facing front lawn, put in an umbrella, a small table and a couple chairs, and it was amazing how much more time we spent out there. It may be infectious, too…our next door neighbor, whom we have known since we moved in 9 years ago, has taken down the laurel “wall” that used to block the house from the street.

    Wed, May 26 at 4:50 am
  7. SeattleAlan said,

    It is nice when spring comes around and I see more of my neighbors working on their front yards. Rolling out of their winter cocoons and out into the light.
    We don’t have a covered porch, so the hanging out is only on dry days – those are coming soon!
    Nice article – Thanks!

    Wed, May 26 at 9:57 am
  8. Linda said,

    Great piece, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. And.  I’m a little reluctant to say this, but as a childless person who enjoys sitting on my porch with a book, I have sometimes been quite amazed at the rudeness when people send their kids out to the front yard to have a good scream ….loudly, at length, and with no adult intervention. So while I agree, and say yes, get out, get to know the neighbors, I also have to say, please– take your kids for walks in the neighborhood, encourage them to play in the front yard as well as the back, when you can, but please don’t send them to the street to play until you’ve done some education on  what it means to be a good neighbor. (Of course I realize that kids will be kids, and being The Cranky Old Lady Down the Street might be doing my part for some kid’s future adventure memories, but I’d rather have a happy interaction with them when I can.)
    Having said that, I want to throw in that the way I’ve gotten to know my neighbors is by going for walks in the neighborhood, and by meeting my neighbors who are walking by. I love meeting the neighbors — adults and their kids and dogs. Go for walks! Remember that the childless  people in your neighborhood can be important allies and friends for your kids…and the only way you’ll feel safe doing that is to get to know those people. It also helps us tolerate the natural, joyful noisiness of kids if we know them.

    Wed, May 26 at 2:45 pm
  9. BusyBody said,

    There is nothing I like better than hearing the neighborhood kids outdoors playing and having a ball, which includes lots of high pitched screaming. It is what kids do when they’re under 9 or 10 and the sound lets us know that all is well while we may not be looking. 
    When I moved into Wallingford in 1975, kids weren’t cosseted like they are now. Life was more “dangerous” (read “exciting”) We made trips to the emergency room for falls and gashes, wiped away tears when their bikes were stolen or they got beat up by a big kid when they were walking home from school (8 blocks).  There were about 20 kids whose homes were on our alley and those kids were everywhere and did all the good, bad, and nutty things that kids do and they all learned lessons from everything that happened.  And I can assure you that it wasn’t safer then than it is now.  And tragedies sometimes happened, as they do now. We just weren’t as nervous and scared as parents are now.  But was it better?  I’m not so sure.  Maybe we just weren’t as smart as dedicated as parents are now.

    Fri, May 28 at 3:31 pm
  10. Cydney said,

    Yes, a bigger porch is always a good thing!

    Wed, September 22 at 6:58 am
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