Sleeping Around in the Neighborhood

June 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, it’s not Desperate Housewives. It’s more Amitai Etzioni than Eva Longoria.

A 50-year-old suburbanite decides to ask his neighbors, one by one, if he can have a sleepover – spend the night, get to know them.

It sounds like that Cheever story, “The Swimmer,” where a man decides to make the eight-mile trip home by water – swimming through the backyard swimming pools of his neighbors.

But where the Cheever character is alcoholic, self-centered, delusional (and fictional), Peter Lovenheim is concerned about community. He has read some Bowling Alone. He cites GSS data on the decline of spending a social evening with neighbors. He realizes that his neighbors know one another superficially if at all and may not know the names of those who live just a few doors down. So by phone, e-mail, or ringing the doorbell, he proposes his sleepovers.
His teenage daughter tells him he’s crazy.
Sure, the sight of your 50-year-old father leaving with an overnight bag to sleep at a neighbor’s house would embarrass any teenager, but “crazy”? I didn’t think so.
In fact, over half of the eighteen people he asks say yes. And the results are positive, at least according to Lovenheim in yesterday’s op-ed column in the Times. The neighbors haven’t written their op-ed pieces yet.

The quest for community seems like a permanent part of the American experience. Books like Bowling Alone document and lament the decline of community. And it’s not just academics who sense this loss. Community, like sex, sells. When I clicked on the Wesbsite for Brighton, NY, the dateline for Lovenheim’s article, I found this tagline: “one of the finest communities in which to live, work, and raise a family.”

Maybe so, but it’s also a “community” where, without the effort of “crazy” people like Lovenheim, “we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines . . . the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.”

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