a time when so many people shut their garage doors behind them and rarely say hello, having a network of nearby friends is more comforting than ever. "We all long to connect with people and be valued in life. It helps us think, 'I have meaning here. I have a place here,'" says Leslie Levine, author of Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home?
The happiest of homeowners agree: "My neighbors share the good and the bad with us. It's such a relief to know that help and companionship are just a short walk across the lawn," says one Madison, Wisconsin, woman. A year or so ago, her neighbors all rallied around when her son was unexpectedly hospitalized for a few weeks. "They got together and decided to mow our yard all summer so it would be one less thing we had to worry about," she says.
If you'd like your new neighborhood to be a place where everyone gathers around a neighbor's grill or hollers out a greeting to the kids who pedal by on their bikes, here are some ways to make that happen:
Make little things count. Haul in your neighbor's trash cans, or take in packages from UPS if they're out of town. If you notice they've left their car lights on, let them know so they can avoid a dead battery. In Chicago, one resident was so thrilled with his new snow blower that he used it on the entire block -- including everyone's driveway -- when the first big snow hit.
Be there in times of need. Is a neighbor sick? Circle the wagons with others on your street or cul de sac. One Arizona man's neighbors put together a schedule, all taking turns cooking dinners for nearly six months, while his wife struggled (and finally succumbed) to cancer.
Exchange keys for emergencies. "Getting locked out can really put someone out," Levine notes. If you've been known to lock yourself out of your car, consider giving a trusted neighbor a copy of your car key, too. Leaving town? The mere act of giving your neighbors a heads-up can help establish a lasting bond. If you've hired a house sitter or pet sitter, let neighbors know so they won't be alarmed by a strange face.
Tackle projects together. Pitching in for a common goal helps people feel like part of the community. Pick up trash around the neighborhood, or plant flowers in common areas. Or band together to talk to your local government about busy residential streets, nearby plans for a commercial project, or the rerouting of a major highway near your home.
Create a co-op. Instead of each homeowner in your neighborhood investing in his own circular saw or extension ladder or fertilizer spreader, chat with neighbors about creating a co-op. Everyone contributes the equipment they have and can borrow whatever they need. A baby-sitting co-op can work just as well.
Seek safety. Don't wait until someone on your street gets burglarized. Talk to your local police department about starting a Neighborhood Watch program now.
Earn money together. In Harmony, Rhode Island, 18 neighbors each held their own yard sale on the same Saturday. One neighbor handled the newspaper ads and the rest pitched in to put up yard sale signs on a nearby road. It helps cut costs and attracts more buyers.
Write a newsletter worth reading. Forget "Little Becky starts kindergarten this year." Take a cue from communities that do it right: Include city-related news that affects your neighborhood, discuss projects everyone can be involved in, promote a House of the Month, etc. Include classifieds (free, of course) for everything from items for sale to baby-sitting services.
Designate block captains. They can deliver quarterly newsletters door to door, welcome new neighbors, and serve as the eyes and ears if anyone on their block needs something. They also can be a liaison to the neighborhood association president.
Plan to meet new people. Just walking your dog at the same time every day can start connections that last for years. If you notice some neighbors who jog at the same time everyday, head out at that time yourself and ask if you can tag along.
Schedule regular get-togethers. One West Palm Beach, Florida, neighborhood has monthly happy hours that always meet at a different neighbor's house. They also have quarterly block parties, complete with band, tent in the street, and a row of grills the neighbors roll out for cooking chicken and burgers. Think casual, though. Big-deal parties can seem ominous if everyone doesn't already know each other. Consider a "bring your own spoon" ice cream social, or something equally low-key.
Be quirky. Trying something out of the ordinary tends to draw people out of their shells. One Baltimore neighborhood has an annual croquet party on the community's common area. After the game, they drink champagne punch, nibble on the finger food and chicken kabobs that everyone contributes, and schmooze.