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It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I live in the best neighborhood with the best neighbors.

I hope your first reaction after reading that statement was "No, you're wrong. I live in the best neighborhood with the best neighbors."

The warm fuzziness of community and its "big small town" feel is probably the best thing about Memphis. That and the music, of course. (I'm from Kansas City and therefore not allowed to say barbecue, although I will admit that it is tasty.)

Growing up, I lived on an idyllic Leave-it-to-Beaver-esque street that was bursting with kids. So many of my childhood memories involve the neighborhood crew, whether we were jumping on someone's trampoline, blocking off the street to play roller hockey, or "raising money" (i.e., hitting up our parents) to buy fireworks for the 4th of July block party. The parents were all friends, too. For a while, they had a team in a recreational volleyball league, and there was even that epic float trip one summer.

So, my childhood neighborhood has clearly spoiled me. But while there are some profound differences between that Midwest suburban enclave and where I live now in the heart of Midtown, I think I've found that magic again.

This became abundantly clear during our recent snow vacation. Sure, sure, the power may have gone out for some, the roads were icy, and there was that pesky boil order. Other than that, though, it really did feel like a vacation. Every day, sometimes twice, we bundled up in our makeshift winter gear and headed to "Penguin Hill" at the park near our house, where our kids sledded their little hearts out.

We sometimes made plans to meet people there, but generally speaking, we just showed up and instantly found a group. One of the neatest parts about it were all the connections. Family A lives down the street from Family B who goes to school with Family C who does ballet with Family D who is friends with Family A. It was like the Midtown version of the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

We've experienced this community unity before through our participation in a babysitting co-op (currently on hiatus due to the pandemic) and our involvement in a pod school, which certainly strengthened the kumbaya feeling. Sending our daughter back for in-person learning was a decision made easier by the tight-knit neighborhood feeling of her school.

In a world that is big and full of so much discord, it's comforting to feel a part of something. To feel comfortable sending my children down the street to drop something off at the neighbor's. To trust that the other moms and dads are keeping an eye on my kids at the park. To look forward to greeting the crossing guard in the mornings.

There is research to back up the benefits of building this social capital. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), social capital consists of "the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together."

Sarah Lazarovic literally illustrates this concept and writes that "these loose connections [...] make for happy communities--and less lonely humans." Further, she claims "how much [social capital] each of us has is directly responsible for our class mobility and success in life. The more people you feel comfortable asking to borrow sugar, the more likely you are to get the things you want and need out of life."

And speaking of borrowing a cup of sugar, our family has found great joy in the exchange of baked goods and other culinary projects. Whenever we try a new craft or make a batch of granola/elderberry syrup/beef broth, we always make a list of who we can share it with. This goodwill is often reciprocated in the form of soup, cranberry sauce, and even salmon (seriously, a few weeks ago, we received two different types of salmon in the same day!).

Being community-minded has even helped declutter our home. I've gotten a spring cleaning itch, and whenever I come across a long unused item, rather than put it away again, I set it aside in the hopes that it will "spark joy" for someone else. My newest obsession pastime is stalking the Buy Nothing-Midtown/Downtown Facebook page. It has been amazing to clear out some items that would be much more useful to a neighbor than hidden away in a drawer, and I've even scored some pretty great items, like a pair of tap shoes and a water table for the backyard. But more than just the stuff, it has been heartwarming to read and follow the stories of people forming connections, helping one another out, and making each other laugh. (Plus, it's very sustainable by keeping things out of landfills, which is a huge bonus.)

I may be taking a very Pollyanna view of things, but on the very day I sat down to write this post, it took my family over an hour to walk a block and a half because we kept getting sidetracked by friendly neighbors, adorable dogs, and well-stocked Little Free Libraries. If that's not a sign of a thriving neighborhood, I don't know what is.

The expert on beautiful neighborhoods, Mr. Rogers himself, once said, "Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person." Well, I don't have to imagine because I already know, and I sincerely hope that you do, too.

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