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Take back the streets

With a neighbor's help we barricaded our street with a collection of recycling and garbage bins, hung with a garishly painted cardboard sign. A pop-up tent, a bunch of folding tables, a barbeque grill, and keg of beer were rolled out of one garage or another. It was time to get our block party on.

The Seattle Police Department supports an annual Night Out event, which allows neighborhoods to close of their street (with some exceptions) for a neighborhood gathering. It's an event designed to bring neighborhoods together, and for our street it definitely works. There's a certain magic to having the streets available for socializing. Kids ride bikes and scooters, throw frisbees, and generally cavort in the road. Adults touch base, trade stories, and catch up on neighborhood news. We update our neighborhood contact list and greet new neighbors. We talk about theft or prowling in the neighborhood, drug activity, or other unsavory business. We grow the connections that make our neighborhood healthier, happier, and safer.

It's such a simple thing really, but powerful. It's also becoming rare. I hear from so many people about the anonymity of their neighborhoods. People can live their lives next to each other without learning the names or stories of the people around them. Communities in the city and suburbs, such as they are, are often self-selected affairs, built around some shared interest or past-time or place of worship. Neighbors are a different kind of community, one built on simple proximity. When neighbors knit together some neat things can happen. People watch out for each other, help when help is needed, lend and borrow useful things like wheelbarrows, ladders, and lawn mowers.

In The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, Susan Pinker makes the case that a strong social context is a critical part of a happier and longer life. A neighborhood is a great place to find and build some of that context. And a Night Out is a pretty great way to get a neighborhood together.

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