Social Class and Neighborliness


The neighborhoods with the nicest homes in Palo Alto and Menlo Park are very quiet. Very, very quiet. I’m talking almost-never-talk-to-your-neighbor quiet. So, they’re not Playborhoods (i.e. neighborhoods where kids go outside and play), regardless of whether kids live there or not.

That’s the conclusion my wife and I have come to, by and large, after two plus years of house hunting here.

Of course, we want a house in a Playborhood, and as for the house. we would like lots of interior space – at least 3000 square feet. We’ve discovered that finding both of these things is nearly impossible. We’re square pegs trying to fit into a round hole.

The fact is that, overall, the owners of these 2+ million dollar homes are not very “neighborly,” at least when they’re compared to owners in other neighborhoods with much less expensive homes.This is a very intriguing, and, frankly, disturbing, phenomenon. Does this really mean that upper-middle- and upper-class people don’t want to have relationships with their neighbors? Furthermore, since lower-middle- and middle-class neighborhoods in general are more neighborly, does this mean that neighborliness is lowbrow, beneath the 2+ million dollar home crowd?

More to the point for those of us interested in Playborhoods, is it considered lowbrow in Palo Alto or Menlo Park for kids to play outside in neighborhoods? The few neighborhoods where I’ve detected small amount of outdoor play in Palo Alto and Menlo Park have home prices in the middle range or below here, but of course, these prices are still among the highest in the US.

Geez, this is depressing to even think about. It’s depressing because I’d hate to think that neighborliness is to the 21st century what something like infant mortality was to the 19th and 20th centuries – i.e. a scourge of the lower- and middle-class that we’d like to eradicate completely from American society.

Please, someone, tell me I’m wrong, and tell me we’re going to turn this around and make neighborliness and outdoor play desirable, even among upper-middle- and upper-class folks. I’d hate to have to buy a house we don’t want just to have a vibrant neighborhood with outdoor play for our kids.

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6 Responses to Social Class and Neighborliness

  1. atotic says:

    You are still better off than the really rich:

    My suggestion: remodel your own house in the neighborhood you like.

  2. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Mike: Front Porch Forum hosts 130 online neighborhood forums in one pilot area, greater Burlington, VT. Anecdotally, we see lots of the neighbors in wealthy areas sign up for our service (gotta be on the grapevine), but they post precious little. Middle and low-income areas are much more apt to share their views, request help, lend a hand, announce events… to generally live in community vs. in isolation.

    Also, Bill McKibben, in his recent book Deep Economy, writes about countries that are overflowing with material wealth and are poor in community (e.g., U.S.) vs. developing countries that are poor materially but rich in community… opens up some interesting lines of thought.

  3. Jeremy Adam Smith says:

    I live in Noe Valley in San Francisco, which is pretty affluent, and yet it is definitely a “playborhood”–there are parks, a farmer’s market, and a lively street life filled with children. We’ve developed a wonderful community of families here, and we have strong ties to the Castro and the Mission, which brings together different social classes, cultures, and lifestyles. I think that problem here is that you are looking at what I would describe as suburban hell–why not try a dense urban area?

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    I’m not willing to give up on the ‘burbs just yet. I grew up in a wonderful ‘burb outside Pittsburgh, PA.

    Even if I do give up, though, I’d still like to figure out why not knowing your neighbors is a status symbol. It makes no sense to me…

  5. Suzanne says:

    I have come to the conclusion that there is a house price range that you generally have to stay in to have “playborhoodness.” From what I see, as families get into houses that are worth more than a million – (based on prices here in the South) – you start to see factors that work against free play.

    Once you start getting into super high priced houses, you have several cogs begin to turn that work against playborhoodness. First, you tend to have a larger percentage of families with two parents working crazy hours to make the big mortgages and tax bills. Many of their kids are in various daycare arrangements and tend to form their communities based more on their daycares than on their neighborhoods b/c their kids make friends at their daycare and spend a good bit of their time there. Some folks have nannies. However, the nannies I have had and the ones I’ve known just aren’t as good at networking and getting kids over to play as parents are.

    Second, many upper class families send their kids to various private schools all over the city rather than to the neighborhood public school. Often, this is for good reason. However, it works against neighborhood play to have kids getting in the car to go to different schools far away from each other. Again, their family’s community revolves around their different schools rather than around one local school in a neighborhood. I have observed this situation in our neighborhood and in my own childhood. I went to private school and always felt a bit out of the loop from the kids in my neighborhood who went to public school. Also, on our current street, the kids who go to private school don’t mingle with the public school kids on weekends etc. – we hardly ever see them at all b/c their community is understandably with their school, not the neighborhood. We almost never see them.

    Finally, I think that there tends to be more pressure for success in very high income families because as parents we all want our kids to have lives equal to or better than our own. It takes a much more driven and better trained person to keep up an upper class lifestyle than to keep up a middle or even upper middle class lifestyle. Therefore, there is a lot of external and internal pressure in these families to schedule upper class kids in activities that will bring them success in adulthood – this often leads to over scheduling. In addition upper class families have the money to pay for a ton of enrichment, whereas middle class families cannot afford so many classes and activities – so they kick their kids out of the house and tell them to go play.

    I hope that this doesn’t come across as some sort of class warfare. We are apparently, according to demographic data, upper middle class ourselves – so we have the same tendencies. I also know that there are exceptions to my observations.

    I think that the key to getting the upper class out and playing is threefold: 1) get our public schools back into shape so that the upper class would actually consider sending their kids there; 2) convince the upper class that play will make their kids more successful than lessons; 3) get the upper class to use that money that they consequently save to alter their careers so that their family has enough time in their neighborhood to get bored and decide to go bug the neighbors.

    Next.. .I will solve the problem of creating world peace.. 😉

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Thanks for the thorough analysis, Suzanne! I just worry that neighborliness and neighborhood play have become “booby prizes” in our society for those who can’t afford to avoid neighbors and keep their kids enrolled in enrichment activities. I want the friggin’ booby prize!!!