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‘The Vanishing Neighbor’: Do We Know Our Facebook Friends Better Than The Folks Next Door?

Main Street in historic downtown Lexington, Virginia (AP)

What does it mean to be a neighbor?

Those people who live near us, share similar daily routines, share space on the bus. The people who help make your home feel like home because they’re part of your neighborhood’s landscape.

If you think some of your neighborly relationships aren’t what they once were, or aren’t what your parents’ or grandparents’ experience with neighbors were, you’re not alone. In a recent survey, half of all Americans said they didn’t know most of their neighbors at all.

That’s quite a change from decades past. But what does it mean for our society, our politics and our future?

WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with the author of a new book who says the erosion of neighborly relationships has worrisome implications.


Marc Dunkelman, research fellow at Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. He’s author of “Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” He tweets @MarcDunkelman.


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  • “While not a substitute for a civic organizations, sports — played or watched — stands as one of our strongest remaining pillars of community life. To cheer is universal and for every loutish fan on the sidelines, there are two dozen others who applaud a great play, regardless of the team.”

U.S. News & World Report: So Long, Neighbor

  • “For the whole of America’s history, its core social building block, what I call the township, [evolved] from the colonial village to the frontier town to the urban tenements to the first ring suburb.”

The Washington Post: The Real Reason For America’s Polarization? Look Next Door.

  • “When traveling through the United States on the journey that would inspire Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans maintained a remarkable social architecture.”

Other stories from this show:

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  • http://realestatecafe.com/blog RealEstateCafe

    Ironically, while neighbors may not know their neighbors by name, ie. never introduced themselves or exchanges first names, public access to information online allows anyone to find out layers of information about their neighbors, including some information they prefer neighbors NOT know.

    In a post-Snowden era, there’s a growing awareness about digital identity and the lack of privacy online. Rather than assuming that’s inherently negative, can we use digital identity to make new connections to BUILD neighborliness?

    Q: If neighborhoods have Walk Scores, can we cocreate “N-Scores” that quantify good old-fashioned neighborliness, too?

    Posting some thoughts on the subject as Marc Dunkelman begins speaking. Can you ask him if anyone is already building apps — like https://nextdoor.com — to increase neighbor-to-neighbor interaction? Here are some conversation starters:

    Neighbors in a post-Snowden era: Would N-Scores increase Happiness?

  • http://realestatecafe.com/blog RealEstateCafe

    Glad that some have talked about the importance of neighbors who know each other, and the social benefit that yields. Sasha, can you ask your guest if he is aware of cities, like Cambridge, Mass. that are literally willing to invest in building neighbor-to-neighbor interaction?

    Two models are worth noting:

    1. Even though funding sources changed, it appears the Cambridge continues to fund neighbor-initiated block parties

    “That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to set-up a $20,000 one-year Build Neighborhoods Fund from Community Benefits funds for $500 grants for neighborhood or area groups to promote community engagement through block parties,…


    2. Police in another city in Canada gave tickets to young people who are caught doing “acts of kindness” to build up goodwill and good relationships within their local neighborhood:


    Hard not to think about what a contrast that is the scenes coming out of Ferguson, MO.

  • Jess McCormick

    I didn’t know any of my neighbors for the first 9 months that I lived in my neighborhood. Then I built raised (garden) beds in front of our house and met more than I ever thought I would. Most people who stopped were surprised and delighted with what I could grow in a small space, but I think they were really just looking for a concrete reason to engage with a neighbor.

    • Emily4HL

      My container garden also facilitated my interaction with neighbors. Plants and pets attract people, especially kids.

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