When I moved into my apartment in Brooklyn, I signed a standard New York City lease with one addendum: at the bottom, my landlady had typed, "I agree to be a good neighbor," and included a line for my signature. She explained what she meant as she handed me the paperwork; she wanted me to say hello to neighbors on the street, to stop and chat, to help people juggle groceries or dogs when needed.
I don't think I had specific expectations of neighborliness when I first moved from California to New York. If someone had asked me, I would have probably guessed that things in my new neighborhood wouldn't have been that different from parts of the Bay Area; a steady flow of people moving in and out of apartments on the block, and people often passing each other on the street with heads down, without stopping to say hello.
Instead, I ended up in a neighborhood that reminds me of Sesame Street. Part of this was superficial—my neighbors hang out on the stoops in front of their brownstones or in front of the corner store, and I live in a carriage house not unlike the one behind the Muppets’ playground—but it’s mostly social. Many of the families in the neighborhood have lived there for generations. When they pass in the street, they ask about each other’s grandmothers and kids. People linger in front of their buildings waiting for neighbors to chat with. It’s easily the friendliest place I’ve ever lived.
My landlady and her husband are newer to the neighborhood, after living for decades in SoHo. But they’ve become as engrained in the block as any of the older families. In the morning as I’m waking up, I often hear my landlady down on the sidewalk in front of my door greeting everyone walking by: she knows every child on the way to school, the name of every dog, where people will be going on vacation, and who’s looking for a job.
The neighborhood is evolving, just as New York City has continued to evolve since the beginning. The Sicilian families that have filled most of the brownstones are beginning to very slowly be replaced by people who are new to the neighborhood. My own apartment was once an Italian social club. But it still feels like a strong community, and perhaps even like something approaching the platonic ideal of a neighborhood.
That clause in my lease was my first sign that for people on my street, living here means more than just leading a private life. It's about being a neighbor.
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and we'll send you GOOD's Neighborday Survival Guide and a bunch of other fun stuff.
Brooklyn image via Shutterstock.