How best to get to know your neighbors?
May we suggest a sleepover?

  • Image about Peter Lovenheim
IT WAS 1:43 A.M. on a Monday when I realized for the first time ever that there’s a streetlight on my block. I made this discovery while standing on the front steps of my house with a near-dead cell phone in one hand, a flashlight in the other and a carbon monoxide detector screeching away inside. Other than three (very lucky) houses in the middle of the block and that one streetlight, my neighborhood was completely in the dark and without electricity.

A nor’easter had powered through New York City the day before, so the power company was rushing hither and yon. Estimated response time for a possible carbon monoxide leak? One to two hours.

“So what am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? I’m out here by myself.”

The guy on the phone at the power company didn’t have any ideas for me. Well, he had one: If the house was well ventilated, I could wait inside. So I sat in the front seat of my car. For 10 minutes. Then I called my neighbors, walked next door and crawled into the bed in their spare bedroom.

And started laughing.

A MONTH EARLIER, I had received an advance copy of author Peter Lovenheim’s In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. After an incident involving some people who lived on his block, Lovenheim realized that he didn’t really know his neighbors, even though he had lived on the block for most of his life.

That’s when he decided it was time to exchange the Edward Hopper–painting level of anonymity that had long ago settled on the street’s 36 houses for a sense of community. Or at least to try.

His tool of choice: sleepovers. Yes, sleepovers. It would be community activism with the help of pajamas instead of posters, morning coffee instead of marches.

“I have never thought of it that way,” Lovenheim said when I asked him about it.

But it was just that. Because Lovenheim didn’t just get to know some of his neighbors, he helped some of them meet — and care about — each other. Though there are some neighborhoods where community rules, it’s not the norm in 2010. In an age of Facebook and overscheduled lives, Lovenheim’s decision to get to know his neighbors seems positively … crazy.

Luckily, many of his neighbors were at least willing to listen, even if they decided not to take part. “People were pretty intrigued by it. Remember, I’m their neighbor too,” he said.

Over time, Lovenheim realized he had to break his neighbors into the sleepover idea slowly, first asking to spend time interviewing them about their lives. Then he would ask if he could shadow them for a day. If all signs pointed to “Hey, neighbor, come on in!” he would bring up the sleepover idea.

Of the 36 houses on his block, Lovenheim approached 18 about the project. Nine neighbors said yes.

The first neighbor he approached turned him down. The second, Lou Guzzetta, the 81-year-old father of one of Lovenheim’s childhood friends, offered an easy, “Yeah, why not?”