Every Memorial Day weekend, our neighborhood throws a block party. After months of pseudo hibernation from the mid-Atlantic winter and unpredictable spring, it serves as an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate the upcoming summertime.
Anticipation runs high. Planning starts months in advance. Secure the permit. Meet with the “committee” to go over the plans for entertainment, food and drinks. Kids create a flyer and go door-to-door to spread the word. We all hope and pray for good weather.
Whether it rains or shines, lots of people show up. Naturally, there is strong participation on our block but it has spread beyond both intentionally and unintentionally. People come from other blocks and even neighborhoods. I think there is some block party envy and we don’t mind. In fact, we like it.
Our entertainment is curated from the neighborhood. Young and old. Our nine-year old did a drum solo one year and an older neighbor played his fiddle. Our most frequent performer is a band of moms and dads who play folk cover songs. One time, I joined to sing Me & Bobby McGee. Unfortunately, it was recorded. Darn kids.
Not everyone likes the block party. A woman a few blocks away was unhappy with the music and complained. I took a break from the party and introduced myself. She said, “I don’t mind loud music, but I mind your music that loud.” She may have a point. Nonetheless, she later joined the party for the fellowship despite the music being even louder in person.
People stay a while. One year, a couple got in a tiff because she didn’t want to leave and he felt the obligation of other Memorial Day parties to visit. She won. Sometimes, especially in our busy culture, there’s something nice about just being. It’s exceedingly rare.
In our experience, block parties help build community. People have an excuse to get together. It brings together people from different circles, even if our living quarters are geographically approximate. It’s fun to see long-time residents connect with new neighbors. I also enjoy seeing the mix of young and old and everywhere in between.
The benefits of a block party linger. Parents find babysitters and babysitters find parents. Recently, we were away and furniture was successfully delivered to our house thanks to a helpful neighbor.
It builds what social scientists call social capital. Social capital is “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Social capital is a good thing.
The problem is that, as a society, we are suffering from decreasing social capital. As this happens, loneliness and social isolation increase. In his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, Senator Ben Sasse identifies loneliness as the number one health epidemic – citing its prevalence and negative impact on life expectancy – and root of our unhealthy political partisanship.
In a recent survey of over 20,000 people, it was found that nearly half of those surveyed reported feeling some times or always lonely. The loneliest group was one of the youngest: people age 18-22. Generation Z – or the “iGen Gneration” according to Jean Twenge of San Diego State University – is the first generation to be raised with – or by – smartphones.
Older people are lonely, too. In another study of people 45 and above, about 1/3 were identified as lonely. This proportion is the same as a comparable study from 2000. The difference now, however, is that with people living longer, there are more people in this bucket. 5 million more, now up to about 45 million.
Part of the challenge is that many neighborhoods are becoming less neighborly. According to a recent study, about 20% of people regularly spend time with their neighbors, down 33% from the 1970s. Sadly, 1/3 of Americans never interact with their neighbors. Not surprisingly, according to another study, for those midlife and older, over 60% of people who are lonely have never spoken to a neighbor.
Connecting with our neighbors is about more than goodwill. It’s healthy. One study found that higher neighborhood social cohesion lowers the risk of heart attacks. Another found that good neighbor relationships lower risk of strokes.
Block parties aren’t the only approach. In Indiana, there is a movement to create porch parties. Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis started the effort in 2014 and it has now grown statewide, including fifty-two counties and seven hundred porches participating. “The one really beautiful thing about porching is that it’s outward facing. Random people from your block can walk by and come on your porch and it creates a closer-knit block,” says Kyle Ragsdale, an Indianapolis resident and porch party host.
In theory, building community should be easier in apartment homes given the close proximity of people. But, it often requires intentionality. At Smart Living 360, “connection” is one of our three anchoring principles and we encourage this through organized events and supporting resident organized potlucks. It has fostered friendships, including intergenerational relationships.
Researchers believe that social isolation can be contagious. When one person disconnects from another, it leaves both people with one less contact.
What if block parties could be contagious? Maybe they are. This year, we got caught up in the busyness of life and the Memorial Day block party didn’t happen. However, a friend from another block stepped in and hosted a block party last month. It filled that sense of connection and neighborliness that we missed this spring.
Now it’s your turn. Go host a block party. You, your block and your neighborhood will be better for it.