Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Delivery Boy

Three times a year, I’m a delivery boy. My job is to deliver the Neighborhood Newsletter to about 100 homes on the streets of my suburban neighborhood near Boston. You might see me going door-to-door and placing newsletters under doormats, wedging them in door handles, or covering them with a small stone so they don’t blow away.

But why is this worth writing about for community psychologists? Because the Neighborhood Newsletter is unusual, in several ways. First is its pure longevity; it’s been published and hand-delivered free of charge for almost 20 years now, usually in eight-page issues, attractively designed and professionally printed. A volunteer network of about 20 neighbors distributes it to every household in our neighborhood of about 2000 people. To do this costs about $2000 a year. And what’s just as unusual is how that money appears – there are no ads, no subscriptions, no memberships, no dues; just voluntary contributions. Neighbors simply send checks, often without prompting.

A printed neighborhood newsletter also seems unusual in this digital day and age, when everyone is online and when people seemingly have more important things to care about than neighborhood life. But most neighbors seem to like and value the Newsletter. Many say so personally; some will write for it; a few even come to planning meetings. The Newsletter has almost died several times; it’s always been a fragile flower; but at this writing it’s still breathing.

But perhaps what’s most unusual is how the Newsletter relates to the nature of the neighborhood. That nature is complex, maybe paradoxical. For example, when doing my route, I don’t run into many people, basically since there aren’t many people to run into. People are inside, or they are away; life on the street is hard to find.

When I do meet someone, though, they are almost always friendly. We’re likely to chat (in academic lingo, we build social capital). I’ve made thousands of deliveries by now, and no one has ever been unpleasant, nor has any one ever acted suspicious of what I was doing, even when lurking around their doorstep and trying to squeeze a newsletter under their front door.

There’s more: most of my neighbors, I know from experience, like our neighborhood. Many have told me it’s close to perfect. On the other hand, most will also tell you that their neighborhood involvement is low to nonexistent. I’ve found as well that they don’t know many of their neighbors, that they don’t hang out with them, and that they’re not particularly motivated to do so. Despite all this, they still seem to value the small strand of connection the Newsletter brings, with stories about interesting neighbors, new arrivals, the housing market, or the occasional neighborhood event.

Draw your own conclusions. Mine are fairly simple: neighbors, and people, need some sense of community. The neighborhood helps provide it. A little goes a long way. Most neighbors don’t expect or seek more, though they’d usually take it when offered to them. But they do need that little bit.

Our economic future (read the headlines) calls for stronger local community life. One of our roles as community psychologists – and as citizens – is to make more offers, to create more opportunities for local connections. In a tiny way, that’s what we deliver with the Neighborhood Newsletter. I hope I’ll be a delivery boy for some while to come.

An online version of the Neighborhood Newsletter is available here.

Guidance on starting a neighborhood newsletter is available here.

Post by:
Bill Berkowitz

No comments:

Post a Comment