How would you respond to a neighbor you had just met who asked if he could sleepover one night at your house to record your daily life? Begun as research for a book, Lovenheim’s initiative engaged lives close to his home, answering such a query. Lovenheim’s epilogue of In the Neighborhood records multiple community responses to his initial 2008 essay published in The New York Times. It seems Lovenheim’s good concern for bonding with others is hardly unique. Nationwide concern for knowing one’s neighbor is identified time and time again across the country in voluminous ways. But it is the sleepover concept that is both unique and, as the author’s teenage daughter says, “crazy.”
Various references to outside sources are not so crazy. Home owners sharing property seems to be more common than not; a community pool, for example (115-18). Realizing too late that suburbia separated people rather than intertwining lives highlights Suburban Nation and The City in History (70-71). And what social interest does not reference Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (64) as a source of concern? Lovenheim is to be lauded for his neighborhood outreach in both word and action. There is, however, a self-serving current running beneath the pages of this book. But while it seems In the Neighborhood began as journalistic fodder, Lovenheim’s efforts paid off in real human capital.
The reader may well be put off, on the other hand, by personal comments made by Lovenheim. Specific statements felt wrong: how a woman’s hair lay on her shoulder, references to a lady’s silk sleepwear, titillating repartee with a single woman, and a day spent alone with a married female working at home. Hardly a prudish comment, it seems the whole idea of a “sleepover” went too far with the majority of his neighbors too. Of all the 36 houses in Lovenheim’s subdivision, only enough to be counted on one hand were accepting of such an invitation. Other stories had to be gleaned from “outsiders”: a paper carrier, mailperson, and a frequent walker through the neighborhood.
If one would like a guide to community relations they would be better served by visiting my friends at Englewood Christian Church. Here, not only do people live next door to each other but they extend personal lines of credit to those in their membership who need to buy a home. On a recent excursion through the neighborhood—within a three block radius from the church’s building—one of the leadership was explaining how houses were constructed on his street. “These houses are close enough to one another,” Joe explained, “So that conversations could be had from one home directly across the street to the one opposite.” If one wants to know how neighborhoods should be encouraged, put down In the Neighborhood and visit the one around 57 N. Rural Street, Indianapolis, IN.
Peter Lovenheim. 2010. In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community, on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. New York, NY: Perigee Press. Reviewed by Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College. [Originally published online in the Englewood Review of Books.]