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The Neighbor Break-Up

I just learned that our neighbors are moving, to another state. My heart broke a little when I heard this. They’re moving so that the mom can take a better job, with a saner boss. It’s an important goal.

Over the last decade we’ve been close, as far as neighbors go, but not confidants or dear friends. My neighbors have two children, and their daughter has been one of my 10-year-old son’s best friends, along with a few other kids on the block.

We’re very lucky.  We live on a street of compact, 1920s urban townhomes, and there’s always a pair of eyes, looking out. For years the kids have spent weeks’ worth of snow days together, drinking hot chocolate and sledding. They’ve gone to camps and water parks and movies; they’ve learned to ride bikes, swim and scooter, together. Each Friday we’ve had a pizza and movie night for them. They’ve gone on meticulously-planned trick or treating adventures, and my neighbors who are moving would throw a cocktail party for the adults afterwards.

Because we love the community life we’ve all created here, we’ve decided time and again not to move to another neighborhood for the sake of a yard, or a bigger, nicer house.

I’ve seen these kids as proxy siblings. The door is always open to them.  On one of those snow-day mornings, the daughter who’s now moving came calling a little after 8:00 a.m.  She hadn’t been invited. This isn’t a “play date,” formal invitation type of community. “Whew, sorry I’m LATE,” she apologized to us as she flounced off her snow boots and headed inside.

There’s a whole class of social bonds and relationships like this, if you’re fortunate enough to find them. I’m thinking mostly of the bonds between close neighbors and neighborhoods, especially those forged around children.

This neighborly weave of life is tight-knit, obligated, and real–but no contract, commitment, or any reasonable expectation of negotiated, shared decision-making formalizes it.  You don’t make life decisions in consultation with each other, unlike in a biological family, marriage or extended family.

It’s amusing to imagine myself going over to my relocating neighbors and saying, “Hey, you didn’t consult us about this move!”

After all, they, and we, don’t “owe” each other anything, in the American syntax of free contract.

So it would sound, and be, preposterous for me to feel hurt and betrayed by my neighbors’ decision.  

Except that I do end up feeling that way, secretly. It’s irrational. But in the most tangible, mundane ways, we’ve woven a social fabric together, for our children, especially, and now it’s partially torn.  

This type of relationship brings the pain of separation without the status to do or say anything about it. The neighborhood gang might have felt like a family, but it’s not, of course.  I’ve heard that anthropologists believe that humans naturally go through life in packs of 12. The problem is the people in our 12-packs keep changing.

Divorce is so often cited in the U.S. as the factor that “rips the social fabric,” and “tears society apart.” But that’s not been our experience of community. Of the five couple-friends-with-children that we’ve known who have moved out of state, all of them are intact, married, professional, middle-class families. Divorce isn’t ripping up our particular social fabric. Geographic mobility is. And, in all five cases, geographic mobility in order to take a more secure, prestigious, or better-paying job.

The small knot of the nomadic, nuclear family travels, intact, from one move to another. They’re still married, and together, but there isn’t one neighborhood that’s a set piece in which that family lodges itself for the long haul. 

On the one hand the recession has impeded geographic mobility, because it’s harder to sell a home. On the other hand, the scarcity of jobs makes geographic mobility more imperative. Home ownership has made us inconveniently stationary, Richard Florida argues, at a time when we need more “mobility and flexibility” in this new economy. 

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The economy does seem to be pushing us toward more mobility, but I wish it would stop.

We’ll throw our neighbors a farewell party, and experience that mourning without an exact name—the mourning of a neighborly relation.

Our children might stay in touch in their online game community. At first, there will be earnest, optimistic talk about visits but it probably won’t happen. It’s too inconvenient to our modern lives, and it’s not the spontaneous, casual kind of community we’ve been enjoying, anyway.

When we adopted two kittens a few years ago, we were called the kittens’ “forever home” by the adoption agency. We had to sign a pages-long contract that specified that under no circumstances would we leave them behind, or abandon them to a move.

But neighbors aren’t kittens, or spouses, just neighbors. There’s no forever home clause.

Now I’m getting sentimental, where it’s not my place to be. I just thought that we were all going to go through it, together. That’s all.


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