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‘Go back to where you came from!’Edit

For a nation of immigrants, we are very quick to pull up bridges. Immigration “reform,” anti-development referenda, Nativists, gated communities, blanket downzoning, restrictive covenants—the basic idea is always the same: unfamiliar people can’t possibly share our values, might take away our homes/schools/jobs/parking spaces and will generally ruin our neighborhood/city/country/children. Over the last 50 years, the baby boomers have turned a predominantly urban and rural nation into a decidedly suburban nation, always moving away, away from other people, especially the unfamiliar.

The urban generation is a small counterbalance to this great migration of the last half century. We come from everywhere. We are the daughters and sons of people from every walk of life and cultural heritage, in every city and town in this country and many places further afield. The one thing that we share in common is that we learned the lessons of ’80s teen movies well—suburban isolation is an illness cured by heavy doses of interaction with new people. We are drawn to pockets of earth by the energy of our neighbors and the character of place, not the quantity of the space. One of our biggest fears is moving out to a cavernous exurban home, only to find ourselves lonely and alienated in a cold vacuum of people-poor space.

So we are drawn back to the throbbing urban core, mixing into city neighborhoods of all sorts. But the urban generation hasn’t always been well received, despite our good intentions. Our new neighbors accuse us of encroaching upon their turf and driving up their property taxes, and we hate ourselves for disturbing the temporary equilibrium. But we need a place to live just like everyone else, and we have every right to move where we want to, just like everyone else. So how do we assuage our conscience and win the acceptance of our reluctant neighbors? We can’t retreat to where we came from (which is both nowhere and everywhere) and we can’t freeze the real estate market in time, but we can escalate our charm offensive by embedding ourselves as good neighbors.

To embed ourselves is to try to help our reluctant neighbors see that we want to add to the neighborhood, and that we want the same things they do: to begin with, a community of engaging people, an apartment or house near a train stop that we can afford, good schools and parks and a short walk or bike to fresh food. To embed ourselves is also to recognize that the fear of neighborhood change is part of the eternal struggle of identity politics. Though we don’t mean to, we are threatening voting blocs, carefully gerrymandered to provide a voice for people who have fought for recognition and respect for years. Diluting that voice through diversification threatens elected officials who depend on those voting blocs and alarms community activists who want to retain a voice in government. These are understandable concerns; as conscientious people, the urban generation has a responsibility to respect other voices and needs as we diversify neighborhoods, without silencing our own voice and needs.

So, I offer an incomplete guide to embedding ourselves in our neighborhoods, based on two principles. First, change what you don’t like, and realize that you can’t buy your way out. Second, remember that change is constant; don’t get swept up in nostalgia for what never was and raise the bridge. Embedding means learning to communicate with new people and beginning new conversations; we have no higher calling. I challenge you to expand these guidelines to reflect even more ways to get that conversation going.

The Embedded Neighbor ChecklistEdit

  • Say hi to your neighbors.
  • Pick up trash and shovel snow in front of your house.
  • Join your neighborhood or block association. If you don’t have one, start one.
  • Actively support intelligent policies that increase the number of affordable homes in my neighborhood.
  • Walk, bike and take public transit (cabs qualify). Get rid of your car if you have one, unless you have a damned good reason for keeping it.
  • Rehab, don’t demo, unless it’s an abomination. Whatever you build, make your neighbors proud to live next to your building.
  • Shop locally.
  • Get to know all of your elected officials—in person. Vote, volunteer and hold them accountable as your representative.
  • Send your children to public school, work to improve them and stay involved.
  • Reclaim public real estate lost to personal parking for a wider sidewalk, play space for kids, bike parking, a small garden, a place to set up lawn chairs or some other expression of community.
  • If you buy a building, try to buy a mixed-use building and rent the commercial space to a neighborhood-positive business.
  • Speak up at community meetings.
  • Tip your cab driver extra for driving safely.
  • Volunteer locally.
  • Use your private projects to contribute to the culture of your neighborhood.
  • Organize a block party.
  • Join or start a community supported agriculture program.
  • Work with developers, not automatically against them.
  • Call out your neighbors for comments or behavior that perpetuates limiting stereotypes.
  • Advocate for people-scale development and design.
  • Regulate—be eyes on the street.
  • If you start your own business, employ local folks.
  • Read and engage with your local papers and blogs (as well as the national and international ones), or start your own.
  • Cultivate your community garden.
  • Be a friend of the park.
  • Use the library.
  • Don’t automatically fight against the opening of a homeless shelter or drug recovery clinic in your neighborhood.
  • Curb your dog.
  • Be open to new architecture.
  • Follow the building code.
  • Use your stoop or porch.

The urban generation is a great hope for cities and for our nation. Let us engage our neighbors by actively being neighborly.

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