Peter Lovenheim lives in an affluent Rochester, New York suburb. In February 2000, a murder-suicide involving a physician couple occurred in a house on his street. Two children ran from the house after 10 pm shouting that their father had killed their mother. No one in the neighborhood knew the family well, which had lived there for seven years. Lovenheim was bewildered how a street of 36 homes lacked a sense of community. He desired to know the people whose houses he passed each day, beyond their professions or number of children. He wanted to know the depth of their experience and their essence. Lovenheim knew from childhood sleepovers and summer house exchanges that waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchen and walking their neighborhoods provided insight conversation alone could not do. His mission would require a sleepover. Some residents declined; and yet, many said yes. In The Neighborhood: The Search For Community on An American Street One Sleepover At A Time, is Lovenheim’s near-decade experience to embrace his neighborhood.
Eighty-one-year-old Lou was the first resident to honor Lovenheim’s request to sleep overnight. Lou, a retired surgeon, lost Edie, his wife of 52 years, five years ago and misses her dearly. They raised six children who now live throughout the U.S. Lou welcomes Lovenheim’s company, as his schnauzer, Heidi is his only companion. Lovenheim accompanies Lou to the local Y where he exercises. There, his regular workout buddies laud Lou’s arrival. He appreciates their acclaim, reminding him of his popularity during his surgeon days. Yet, when he returns home to an empty house, as Lou says, “My life is zero.”
Forty-something Patti, lives just doors down from Lou and they’re unconnected. Patti, a radiologist, diagnosed her own aggressive form of breast cancer. She abandoned medicine to undergo chemotherapy. Lovenheim befriends Patti, a divorced mother of two pre-teen daughters. She too accepts his sleepover request. Lovenheim witnesses her health decline over time and helps whenever he can.
Grace, nearly 90, had walked Lovenheim’s neighborhood almost everyday for forty years without acknowledgment. She lived in a nearby town but chose to exercise among the Rochester suburb’s beautiful surroundings. Residents named her “The Walker” from afar. Lovenheim approached Grace during one of her strolls and explained his book project. She invited him to her apartment where he learned her fascinating background. She once lived in New York City and was an accomplished pianist and harpist. Once while walking, she fell. She crawled across the street back to her car and drove herself to the emergency room. Lovenheim questions if a place where an elderly woman falls and is unattended to can fairly be called a “neighborhood.”
Married couple, Deb 32, and Doug, 42 represent the younger faces of Lovenheim’s street. Lovenheim spends the night and senses a more self-sufficient couple. Both are on the fast track in corporate America, childless, and trying to conceive. They’re active members of the local country club. Deb tells Lovenheim she once needed vanilla for cookies and made Dave drive in a snowstorm to buy some. Ideally, he thought, she should have been able to borrow some from him as her neighbor.
Lovenheim rides with Brian, the newspaper deliveryman at 4:00 am to experience his street from a different perspective. He also walks along Postman Ralph’s delivery truck (Postal regulations prevent vehicle passengers) as he does his daily route. Ralph chronicles helping residents, including recognizing the signs of stroke in a customer and calling for help. Lovenheim believes Ralph knows more about his neighbors than they do: “I began to realize that in some ways he was a better neighbor to us than we were to each other.”
Lovenheim validates his neighboring efforts by introducing Patti to Lou. Lou welcomes the opportunity to drive Patti to her doctor’s appointments; making him feel needed. Lovenheim borrows sidewalk salt from Deb; and she agrees to take Patti’s daughter to the skating rink as her health deteriorates. When Lovenheim’s romantic interest ends, he turns to Lou for comfort. They share breakfast almost daily for two weeks as Lovenheim readjusts. “That it would end up being me who would find shelter at a neighbor’s house is something that never occurred to me when I started my journey, yet there it was,” says Lovenheim.
Lovenheim deserves credit for taking on such an assertive project. He displayed immense patience as he befriended his neighbors for some time before requesting to sleepover. He faced rejections too by those weary of his intentions.
In an age of social media where we’re quick to boast 50,000+ Twitter “followers,” reading Lovenheim’s narrative poses the question: Do we in fact know our next door neighbor?
For thought-provoking questions about neighborhoods, view In The Neighborhood’s Reading Guide: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/in_the_neighborhood.html.