When my husband and I bought our first house in Chicago, the location was great, but the house was crumbling. I remember vividly how the real estate agent turned to us and said, “Do you have a strong marriage? Houses like this can lead to divorce.”
The yard wasn’t much better – it had a single Viking maple and a few sprigs of lily of the valley growing amidst weeds. Then we saw a neighbor on his front porch with his young son, who was the same age as our daughter. He quickly came over to say hello and his warmth in that moment told us that this was where we belonged.
In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost wrote, “good fences make good neighbors.” Like all backyards on our block, ours was surrounded on all sides by fences, marking off what now belonged to us. Admittedly, we fell into a familiar mindset. We tended to what was ours and left to others what was theirs. We became focused on individual outcomes – promotions, kids’ test scores, awards – all perceived markers of success. We guarded our turf.
Over time, we came to know our neighbors well. We shared stories on each other’s porches, meals on the patio, and divided perennials over the fences. We celebrated and grieved together, and looked out for each other. We planned block parties and reached out to more neighbors.
“Weaving and strengthening the fabric of community is a collective effort and starts with a shift in our mindset about our connectedness,” writes author and expert in civic engagement Peter Block in his book Community.
“It is the everyday moments of togetherness that keep us together as a society,” Block writes. “The social fabric of community is formed from an expanding shared sense of belonging. It is shaped by the idea that only when we are connected and care for the well-being of the whole that a civil and democratic society is created.”
One spring afternoon, while out doing yard work, I saw my neighbors gardening in their separate yards. It seemed crazy. Our lives had become so connected, yet we each were tending our little bits of garden, as if our creativity and responsibility stopped at the fence line. We knew better and decided that day to tear down the fences to have one large, flowing backyard. It was magic. It led to long conversations around backyard fires and neighborhood kids hiding and running as they played ghosts in the graveyard on hot summer evenings. It was no longer my lawn and my yard, it was theirs…and ours.