Neighbors at a Distance Have Their Own Advantage

I live in California, in a subdivision of tract homes that was developed in the late 1980s. Back then, homes were built on spacious lots to allow for nice-sized backyards and enclosed by solid five-foot-high fences for privacy. Everyone goes in and out of their home in their car, through the garage attached to the house, without ever stepping outside. Very few cars, other than those driven by my neighbors, come through my cul-de-sac. Except for occasional dog walkers, gardeners and Amazon delivery trucks, I see very few living beings outside when I look out the front door. I know now exactly what the Realtor meant when he said this was a “quiet” neighborhood where people mostly “kept to themselves.”

I grew up in a very different kind of neighborhood in Japan, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Our flimsy houses were so close together that if I should sneeze in my room, Mrs. Ota next door would ask me about my cold next time I’d see her. Mrs. Tanaka from two doors down made a hobby of counting how many deliveries her neighbors would get during the gift-giving season. One year she came to my mother to congratulate her on my father’s promotion. To my puzzled mother, she reported that the gift deliveries to our household nearly doubled that year, signaling a significant improvement in my father’s professional standing.

No one locked the front door in that neighborhood except when they expected to be away for more than a few hours. When Mrs. Sato came over, she would call out to my mother, and without waiting for her reply, she’d push open the door. If she found our door locked and no one answered, she would even go around to the back “just in case she didn’t hear.” In this kind of place, one wouldn’t dare not answer neighbors when they came knocking, or else, your “unusual behavior” would be known throughout the block by the end of the day.

Given such an upbringing, you’d understand why it took a bit of adjustment for me to get used to this live-and-let-live kind of neighborhood. For the first few months after I moved in, I was on the lookout, trying to catch my neighbors and introduce myself. It took me weeks to even see my immediate neighbors; after 15 months, I have spoken with only four neighbors in my block of 10 houses. Don’t get me wrong — my neighbors seem to be nice people. We wave if we see each other in the distance; we exchange season’s greetings and comment on the weather. But as soon as the pleasantry is over, we all retreat back into the privacy of our homes and close the front door. I even attended the meetings of the homeowners association a few times, hoping to meet more of my neighbors, but discovered that no one showed up to these meetings except for the elected officials, who were all retired men from other parts of the subdivision.

But then, this is the 21st century. Who needs actual neighbors when we can find hundreds of virtual ones?

My house came with a video doorbell, which came with an online application. The app included a feature called “the Neighborhood,” where homeowners who have the same brand of doorbells can post messages anonymously. Some of these messages are serious (reports of crimes and major accidents); some are practical (where the blackouts are and when power will be restored); and yet others are mundane (lost bicycles and dog poop left on someone’s front lawn).

As the approximate location of the neighbors who posted the comments appears on the map, one can see the distribution of different kinds of activities across the four-mile radius of my house. Reports of gunshots often come from the west side of the city across the freeway; mail and package theft was rampant in the area north of me; a group of teenagers were spotted multiple times in the neighborhood to the east, vandalizing holiday decorations; catalytic converters, an expensive car part that can be cut off from the exhaust system in a matter of minutes, are stolen almost nightly in a couple of neighborhoods across the river.

Aside from learning about all the incidents in my area and getting the feel of what’s going on in the city, I also find the friendly tone of the exchanges comforting. Comments posted by other neighbors are typically sympathetic to the one who made the original post, who felt upset by the crimes or mischief they witnessed or experienced. Others encourage the poster to report the incident to the police, give advice on how to avoid further issues, or otherwise try to help the poster in some way. When an overtly critical comment pops up, someone else usually steps in to console the original poster. All and all, everyone behaves in a friendly and supportive way and seems to be interested in keeping their neighborhood a safe and livable place.

These online exchanges are no match for the close day-to-day interaction that characterized my childhood. Still, I enjoy reading these posts and feeling that my neighbors are, generally speaking, well-intentioned people. I know, I know, I can’t count on them to do anything concrete to help me in times of trouble, as Mrs. Ota and Mrs. Tanaka would have done. At the same time, there’s also a distinct advantage to my virtual neighbors: I don’t ever need to worry about them barging in unexpectedly during my afternoon naps.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.