Is it still worth getting to know your neighbors?

I wondered that recently as my neighbors organized a block party in my San Gabriel Valley neighborhood. I wasn’t looking forward to it. 

After all, we’d been happily living here since 2011, and had no problems with neighbors, even though we didn’t know them well. And I understood, from visiting neighborhoods around our state, how quickly relations can sour between neighbors in this era of anger and accusation. 

My reluctance is very Californian. Polls show that most of us love our neighborhoods, but we are less sure about our neighbors.  Californians are less likely than other Americans to work with our neighbors to improve the community. 

Theories for this abound, from our state’s huge size and diversity (our lack of neighborliness is in line with results from Florida, Texas and New York) to our long commutes (which keep us away from our homes).  Another factor is California high poverty rate. Just 39 percent of low-income Californians reported in the Advancing Wellness Poll that their neighbors take an active interest in their community. 

My work is time-consuming, so when I’m actually home, I’d rather play with kids, sleep, cook, or watch Netflix than hang with neighbors. And if you get cross-wise with your neighbors in California, it’s hard to escape them; between the high housing prices and Prop 13 protections for longtime owners, people here are less likely to move away.

So, I kept my distance when a family from Canada moved in across the street. She seemed too eager to engage. After suffering a bike theft, she contacted neighbors to document other property crimes on our block, and then start a neighborhood watch. I didn’t go to the meeting. Property crimes, I reasoned, are just the price of living in Los Angeles County. 

The neighborhood watch’s first project was a block party. Block parties are a World War I-era invention that became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s. They’ve never been as common in Southern California as in Chicago or New York, though. For one thing, we’re reluctant to stop traffic for something as small as neighborliness. 

The Canadian came to the door to get our signatures in support of the party—community support is required to get city permission to close down the street. We agreed, even though she kept calling me Dave, which was vaguely annoying. 

On the appointed Saturday, I was still inside our house, contemplating whether to go out, when two of my boys noticed that the street was now a car-free playground, and raced outside on their scooters, with me in pursuit.

We confronted a considerable tableau. The neighbors on either side of our house—the two people who I knew well enough to have been inside their homes—were out grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and desserts. A third neighbor had set up a full bar. 

And it seemed like everyone else in the neighborhood was already out on the street. There were kids playing ball and cornhole, and drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. An elderly woman, who I’d never seen before on the street, showed up in her wheelchair. 

I knew almost every face, but most of the names were new. And people were eager to share their stories. I discovered that I knew many of the neighbors from other contexts—Little League, the Y, or the Mandarin immersion program at the boys’ elementary school—without realizing they lived on the street. A woman with whom I serve on a school committee lives just up the block.

My neighbors filled me in on the local history. I learned all about the Greek-American man who had owned our own home from 1945 to 2011, when he passed away at age 102. And my neighbors also talked through the history of their own homes. Many houses on our block had stayed in the same families for a couple of generations; no one wants to sell, because here in the heart of greater Los Angeles, no one could ever afford to buy back in.

The neighbors were a diverse group—in race, ethnicity, age, and occupation. What we had in common, in this slice of upper-middle-class Southern California, was higher education. By my accounting, more than half the residences had at least one person with a UCLA degree.

Old-timers told me there hadn’t been a block party since 2001. That one was held right after 9/11, as a way to calm fears. Several people said that we should have a gathering every year. 

After four hours, it was dark and a little cold, but most of the neighborhood was still on the street. I excused myself to put the kids to bed. But I didn’t want to leave.


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.