The bane and boon of close neighbor(hood)s

When Jennifer and I were looking to buy a house, we knew that our search criteria put location as a high priority.  Downtown Hopkins has a multitude of amenitites within walking distance, is a brief commute for my wife, and is connected to Minneapolis by frequent mass transit.  Add to that the pre-WWII housing stock in abundance and a straight street grid with sidewalks and you’ve got the urban landscape I desired in the suburban location Jen desired.  And while I have fond memories of the part of my childhood spent living in such a neighborhood, I still was not completely prepared for everything that comes with having a mere ten paces on either side of you.

On an evening earlier this month, we came home after dining out to find our neighbors having their usual weekend fire.  So, I felt obliged to show off the baby and meet their friends.  As it turns out, their friends had, at one time, rented the house that is now ours, and after Jen took the baby to put her to bed I stuck around for a few stories about the myriad of interesting folk that had occupied our house.  There were all kinds of crazy characters, the most amusing being a couple whose fights once escalated to the point that they were trowing furniture at each other, and my neighbors followed all of their their lives from the comfort of their own home.

The couple that they enjoyed watching the most actually lived on the other side of them.  There was one particular incident where the wife had locked the husband out of the house, and he spent a good hour banging on the door and cursing loudly as she hung out the kitchen window taunting him.  As I had been told, the whole while my immediate neighbors stood in their bedroom window, in full view of the fight, laughing loudly at the whole ordeal.

Slowly, as I sipped my beer and huddled close to the fire, I came to the realization that the possibility of my life being their amusement was a wee bit uncomfortable.  And the proximity of their house to ours didn’t make the feeling any better.

There is a teacher across the street, and over the summer she becomes quite the voyeur of the lives of her neighbors.  Last summer I learned all about all the people who live on this end of the block from her, not necessarily their names, but all the usual habits and goings-on.  She knows which cars should and shouldn’t be in the neighborhood, who has family over regularly, who doesn’t take great care of their lawn or house (me), and if anything looks out of place she’s not afraid to investigate.

But she’s also not afraid to contact the authorities if something looks horribly wrong.

Now, I like my privacy.  And my wife clutches dearly to hers.  Every day I look out my kitchen window and see all the shades pulled shut on my other neighbor’s house, and I see all of her children coming and going.  I look out my daughter’s bedroom window and I can see into the kitchen of the aforementioned couple (when the morning sun bathes their kitchen in light, I can easily count the number of magnets on their fridge).  Or, if I open the blinds in my bedroom, I can see what they’re watching on the television.  And I realize that if I can see them, they can just as easily see me.

Here’s the Catch-22: I like to let the fresh air and sunlight in more than I want to keep prying eyes out.  And I’m just as much a connoisseur of the show outside my windows as they are.  (The male half of the couple next door, by the way, enjoys singing to The Current.)

So here’s where things turn around.  After one particular shopping trip last summer, I had returned home to find that my daughter was wearing one less shoe than she had been when I left the house.  And the pair she was wearing were her red Chuck Taylor high-tops, a pricey and special pair of shoes, so of course I had to rush back out and down the street to find it.  I found it back at the bus stop, where she had apparently slid it off just after I had placed her back in her stroller, and I returned home relieved, left the door open to let in some air, and laid her down for a much needed nap.

Shortly thereafter, I was in Jen’s and my bedroom to fold some laundry, and I heard a voice at the front door.

“Matt?  Are you there?”

It was a man’s voice, but since we were just getting to know the people who lived around us I wasn’t sure who it belonged to.

“Yeah, need something?” was what I called out as I started walking to the hall and over to the front.

“No, I just thought you left and I saw your door open.”

When I rounded the corner and got a view out the front window to the stoop, there was nobody there.  So I’m not entirely sure who it was that had checked in on the house.  But to this day the incident negates any ill feelings I get about just how visible my life can be to my neighbors.  In the end, it’s apparent that they have the best interests of everyone in mind.  The proper way to deal with the proximity is respect, and as long as we all live so close we may as well be friends.

I don’t mind giving up a little bit of privacy in exchange for some safety.  Mind you, that only applies to my neighbors and not government wiretapping programs, but that’s an entirely different topic altogether.

It hasn’t taken long for us to  be familiar with the neighbors.  I have no qualms with standing by their fire pit (and vice versa), the teacher across the street has great gardening tips, and the school librarian two houses down has two little girls that were just enamored with my daughter in an I-think-she’ll-have-someone-to-play-with type of way.  And the day would not be complete without seeing the UPS truck stop at the house across the street to pick up and drop off merchandise for the woman that runs a craft supply business from her garage.  It’s all part and parcel of living in a pre-auto boom city.  Everything is on such a smaller scale than the modern giant-house-giant-yard suburb, and it feels more appropriately human-scaled.

I haven’t gotten this feeling of, shall we say, closeness anywhere else that I’ve lived recently.  Even in the multitude of apartment buildings that I lived, where I shared common walls and hallways with other residents, the ultimate goal was to shield yourself from everyone and I never knew any of my neighbors there.  The townhouse in Eden Prairie was no better; with no outdoor space besides the common areas (the funny thing about “common” spaces is that when one resident uses it, the other residents tend to stay away) there was no safe haven from which to hang out, observe, and eventually greet your neighbor over the fence.  And that has been a comfort, being able to relax in the back yard and have that smiling face acknowledge you with a wave, or even a wave over and a freshly opened beer if they feel like company.

The short of it is, good fences and cafe curtains make for sufficient privacy, even when your house is ten paces from your neighbor’s.  And despite any perceived intrusion, it’s okay to open the windows and belt out your favorite song at the top of your voice.  Because if the neighbors can’t hear you sing, how are they going to hear you cry for help?

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