Breaking down the fence: do you eat with your neighbors?
July 1st, 2011
04:00 PM ET
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In response to my recent article about a neighbor's highly odoriferous grilling habits, a goodly chunk of commenters raked me over the coals (or in this case the gas jets) for not marching over with a case of beer, introducing myself, and offering up a grilling lesson. I totally understand and celebrate that impulse, and it comes from a generous place.

In the little upstate New York town where I spend a lot of time, I fire up my smoker (many, many, many yards from anyone's house) and next thing I know, my husband and I are happily hosting a dinner party for half the town. A lit grill there is an invitation to dine - and that's the way it is in plenty of places around the country.

Not so in New York, where I've made my home for the past 15 years. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods I've lived in, the aforementioned salvo to a stranger would be met with at best suspicion and at worst, a call to the cops or an introduction to the business end of a baseball bat.

It's not that we're unfriendly toward strangers; ask us for directions, help carrying something up the stairs or a restaurant suggestion and we'll practically trip ourselves helping out. In times of crisis we band together. It's just that we live in such close quarters.

We're stacked up on top of on another in trim, tall, thin-walled buildings and jammed face to tush on rush hour subway cars and we have to live by some social barriers in order to maintain our surprisingly peaceable kingdom. A glance and listen across a crowded F-train car reveals a cross section of New Yorkers of varying age, ethnicity, profession, religious orientation, language and accent that would keep an ethnography grad student in dissertation material for a decade. And, for the most part, everyone's getting along just fine. This is why we live here. We're in our own little worlds with headphones on, nose in books and definitely not making eye contact, but somehow, separately, we're all in it together.

For a city filled with incredible social opportunities, it's astonishingly difficult to meet new people in New York outside existing constructs like work, classes, mutual friends or church. I'm sure this isn't true across the board, but if a stranger says hello on the subway or comes to knock on your door for reason other than to tell you your roof is leaking or something is on fire, many New Yorkers assume they're being sold something or recruited to a cult.

We're okay with that, but maybe we shouldn't be. If there's one thing that can fix that - it's food. And possibly drinks.

And as it turned out, a funny thing happened this morning. I was out watering my crazy rooftop garden, and my new next-door neighbor (not the dodgy griller, but the gent upstairs) was outside sipping his coffee. His head popped over the spot where the fence was sagging, and he introduced himself and started apologizing profusely. His fiancee had attached a hammock to a post, causing the part of the roof where it was attached to crumble to bits on our side. It's okay, I assured him. Gravity just happens, and I'm sure that must have been scary for her.

He seemed relieved - and like a really nice guy - but still mortified. Again, I assured him, it wasn't a big deal. Then I stopped and remembered what commenter Ed G. had written.

He'd said, "I've known all my neighbors every place I've lived. When someone broke into my apartment, it was my neighbors who had my back. During a particularly brilliant sighting of Saturn, it was my neighbor who asked me over for a scotch, a cigar and a view through his telescope. It's my neighbors who gave my kids candy on Halloween. And it's my neighbors to whom I give diapers and and sparkling wine when they have babies."

I took a moment for my inner former suburban girl and cranky Brooklynite selves to have a wrestling match and then blurted out, "I know you just moved here, but we have some pretty great parties and grill out all the time, if you and your fiancee ever want to come over..."

My neighbor, Dan, as I now knew, looked taken aback for a split second and then said, "That sounds really nice. Thank you."

Who knows if they'll ever actually show, but at least I know I've tried to serve up a little bit of neighborly goodwill in a city that's starving for it.



soundoff (74 Responses)
  1. LawnGuyLand

    I grew up in Long Island on a dead end street. My family was the third from the dead end. Us and the two next door neighbors to the end of the block have all been great friends for the last 15 years. Our families are close, and the kids all grew up together. It is literally a "borrowing a cup of sugar" from your neighbors kind of street. If my neighbors see us grilling or see us hanging out over the fence, they just wander right over with a couple of beers.

    While this is great and I've loved every minute of it, it is most definitely not the norm around here. Guess we're just lucky.

    July 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  2. Soozie_que

    I come from a small town in South GA with a population of less than 1,000- and everbody knows everybody and it would be considered highly rude to not go out of your way to speak to your neighbors and invite them over. I've lived in Atlanta for 10 years and have lived in several different apartment complexes. Most of the time any attempts to make conversation with neighbors leads to uncomfortable "are you selling something" stares. I have lived in both worlds and I get it. If my city neighbors showed up on my doorstep with food I probably wouldn't probably be in that awkward "shocked" state, however I wen't "home" to the country this weekend and felt completely comfortable dropping a plate off for my mom to someone I didn't know because they had missed the party. I think you're right on with this article. It's an urban thing.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  3. LuckierThanMost

    I live in "upstate" NY...that is, people from NYC call where I live "upstate", but I only live 60 miles north of the city and there is a lot more state north of me than south of me. That said, I have a very good relationship with my neighbors. We live on a cul-de-sac and are lucky to get along with all of our neighbors. While we do eat with them sometimes, we also know enough to keep our distance. We've lived here for coming up on 10 years and have had ours ups and downs with the neighbors. When we got too close, it became like family and you know how that goes. All-in-all, we have a "healthy" relationship with our neighbors.

    July 3, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
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