Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, moved to the south end of Burlington, Vt. in 2000. He recalls, “We’d landed in what we thought was our dream neighborhood. It was walkable, near the lake, full of trees. But we were having trouble getting to know the neighbors. One night, my wife and I were sitting around the dinner table talking about it. It hit us that in the Midwest, where we’re from, people brought cookies to their neighbors. We’ve been here a year – where were our cookies?”
Hence plan A. They baked up a batch of Tollhouse specials and delivered them to the neighbors. “We used china plates, because I figured that way they’d have to return them and we’d get another conversation,” says Wood-Lewis. “We never did get them back. I was kind of dumbfounded. But I don’t think it was because people were rude. I think it’s because people are living in a different culture than they were 50 years ago.”
A culture busier and more distracted than before – busy enough that even in Vermont something had changed. So Wood-Lewis cooked up plan B, which just may turn out to be one of the most innovative (and deceptively obvious) uses of the Internet so far. In his hand, the Net has become a way to meet people not half a world but half a block away.
“I invested 15 dollars at the copy shop and printed up 400 flyers and put one on every door in our neighborhood. It pretty much just said, ‘Share messages about lost cats and block parties.’ ” So was born the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, which he ran as a volunteer effort for six years. “It took about five minutes a day, and I was already on the computer anyway.” Every evening he’d compile the five or six messages that had arrived at his inbox during the day, and send them out in a single e‑mail bulletin – that was it. Someone would write in: “Neighbors, fyi: late last night I observed a large possum ambling across my front yard. Not as bad as a skunk, but I understand that possums can damage gardens and dig up lawns.” Twenty-four hours later, another neighbor would have responded: “They have very soft feet that are not good for digging, and are not likely to cause lawn damage – and they are very clean animals and spend much of their rest time grooming themselves.” Meanwhile, someone else has pruned their apple trees and wants to share the news that they have kindling piled up on the back porch free for the taking. Down the street someone’s car has been broken into; the only thing taken was a gym bag filled with “my shoes, some sweaty clothes and a couple of issues of the New Yorker. If anyone finds it dumped in their shrubbery, let me know.”
Forget the World Wide Web – this one barely stretches four blocks. And no video, no rating systems, no celebrities, no hyperlinks, just the daily rhythm of neighborhood life. “It grew steadily, from 10 or 20 percent of the neighborhood to the point where by 2006 we had 90 percent of the neighborhood signed up,” says Wood-Lewis. That’s when Cottage Living magazine included the area in its list of the 10 best neighborhoods in the country. “And the reporter called me and he said, ‘Everywhere else in the country people would have dozens of different reasons why their place worked. But here, almost everyone put the e‑mail thing on the list.’ That’s what gave me the confidence.”
The confidence to quit his job and start offering the service across all of Chittenden County, Vermont’s largest. Within two years, FrontPorchForum.com reached 13,000 households, participating in more than 100 neighborhood forums, some of them in inner-city neighborhoods where the main topics were how to fight graffiti and drive away drug dealers; some in rural towns where you get messages like: “We have four Indian Runner drakes who we expected to be females and lay beautiful round eggs. Instead we have these guys who really need some girls!!!”
This sounds like the stuff you’d see in the letter-to-the-editor column or on the bulletin board at the supermarket – and it is. But now it comes in an easy-to-use daily update that somehow breaks down barriers.
“My sense was that this skill of neighborliness had eroded,” says Wood-Lewis, citing data like the Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. “If you could increase social capital in a neighborhood – that is, your network of who you know and how well you know them – then your involvement increases. If you’re among strangers, you’re not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts.”
Sound theoretical? Not long after he’d launched his first forum, one of Wood-Lewis’ neighbors was moving from an apartment to a house across the street. “They figured they could do it by themselves,” he says, “but at the last minute decided they had a couple of big items they’d need some help with. So they put a note on the forum saying ‘come Sunday at 2:00’ – and 36 people showed up. People didn’t just move the chest of drawers and the bed; they organized into teams and boxed up the entire contents of the house, moved it across the street, and unpacked it, all in 90 minutes. I mean, someone pulled the picture hooks out of the wall in the old place and spackled over the holes. All the cardboard boxes were broken down and ready for recycling.”
Front Porch Forum may already be the most important source of information for many Vermonters, who have watched their newspapers lay off reporters and shrink coverage.
“One afternoon last year the state closed our main bridge as unsafe,” says Erik Filkorn. “As a member of the town government I sent an extra to Michael Wood-Lewis, and he got the word right out. I think more people got the news that they’d have to change their morning commutes from him than from the traditional media.” But it only works in emergencies because people use it every day; the steady stream of lost cats and people looking for summer jobs for their teenagers creates the community that people then rely on at more crucial moments.
This same phenomenon is under way across the United States, as our declining economy has led to what sociologists call “an uptick of neighboring.” At the University of Pennsylvania, Keith Hampton runs a website for community groups with over 50,000 members, and the volume of messages grew 25 percent between 2008 and 2009. “I don’t think people will create silos and hide in houses to shield themselves from hard times,” he says. “They’re going to look for people to help solve these problems. Those tend to be your neighbors.”
“There was a mother near us, with a teenage daughter who was having a birthday,” Wood-Lewis recalls. “The girl wanted to go canoeing with her friends for her birthday, but when her mother checked out the price of renting canoes, it was too high. Her daughter said, ‘I see lots of canoes in backyards around here,’ but her mother said, ‘You can’t just ask people you don’t know for their boats.’ Still, she put a one-line notice on the forum, saying they needed six canoes. Before the day was out, people were coming by. I mean, there were canoes just piling up in their front yard. She wrote me a note afterward: ‘What a great feeling. What a great reminder of how to be a community. Why didn’t I get to know these people 10 years ago?’ “
This essay was adapted from Bill McKibben’s latest book, EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April) © 2010 by Bill McKibben. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.