As a child, I had the unusual experience of living in the same neighborhood for my entire life. I didn’t get to see much of the world as a kid, but my situation did have some advantages. Sometimes I walked down my block next to each of the houses, imagining the occupants, thinking of everything I knew about them. The neighborhood changed a lot, but I never had trouble with the couple dozen houses around my own. Listing off the names of those who lived there was easy, like doing times tables. I liked remembering: whose tree I had climbed, who gave us cookies every Christmas, whose dog I played with.
I tried doing this with the block I live on now, in one of Ann Arbor’s largely student neighborhoods. I knew the names of the people in my own house. And next door, I thought there might be a kid named Chris, because I met him taking out the trash.
That’s about it.
The student neighborhoods in Ann Arbor are filled with anonymous residents who eat and sleep within feet of each other but don’t know each other’s names, which comes as no surprise. Students are mobile. Most stay in a given house for only one or two years, and many move away during the summer. You don’t have to be a sociologist to realize that stable, long-lasting members anchor strong communities.
Students are also busy. I know very well that between students’ sixteen credit course load, French tutoring, broomball games and multicultural council, no one has time to walk door-to-door offering casseroles to their neighbors. Given the magnitude of the obstacles, it seems naïve to suggest that residents of student neighborhoods could enjoy anything more than the shaky, slightly suspicious coexistence that currently reigns.
And it may not appear to be an urgent goal. After all, for several people I know, a house means nothing more than the assurance of a bed if they want it. Moreover, Ann Arbor doesn’t have the kinds of problems that usually spur intense community organizing. Even the shabbier student neighborhoods aren’t quite what I’d call blighted, crime is infrequent enough that we can get email notifications whenever it happens and an Ann Arbor City Council meeting is a lot prettier to watch than in some other municipalities.
Still, perhaps you’ve been woken up at one in the morning by the next door neighbor’s obnoxious bass. You need sleep, but you don’t want to call DPS on them and you can’t bring yourself to knock and talk to them, because it would be the first time you’ve met them. Perhaps you’ve been locked out of your house and awkwardly climbed in through a window, wondering, as you balanced on the recycling bin and gripped the windowsill, whether anyone would know the difference if an intruder did the same thing.
In 1997, an article in the journal Science by Robert J. Sampson et al. used the term “collective efficacy” to refer to “social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good.” In other words, people in these neighborhoods know each other. They look out for each other. They have an interest in creating healthy communities.
There isn’t a simple way to bring collective efficacy to student neighborhoods. It requires time and dedication to cultivate, and the obstacles are intimidating. Other communities have successfully formed neighborhood organizations that serve as forums for both social interaction and voicing ideas or concerns. In a student neighborhood, though, the busy, mobile residents would have trouble creating a structured, long-lasting organization. Traditional methods of community development may be out of place in this setting.
There are other, more casual ways to bring a neighborhood together, even working within student constraints. Real social cohesion is hard to find, but simply knowing the people around you is an excellent start. If just a bit of the energy and creativity that students spend on clubs and fraternities were channeled towards neighborhoods, I could imagine outgoing individuals organizing block barbecues, Frisbee games and sidewalk chalk parties. These gatherings would not require much time commitment, but would have significant effects.
The easiest place to begin, though, is with small, everyday interactions. Say hello to the people who walk by your porch. Find out the names of your neighbors. Invite the kid next door to dinner. The bonds you create are the beginning of the web that unites effective communities.
Carolyn Lusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.