Building Neighborhood Connections in the Midst of the Foreclosure Crisis

Jessica's kids and their friends created an obstacle course for chickens in their back yard. Note the live chicken on the lower left.

Suppose your mortgage is under water,* other neighbors with the same problem have abandoned their homes, and the neighbors who remain are very different from you.

What would you do?

“We considered walking away, but decided that it would not be right,” says Jessica of her and her husband’s decision regarding their home in a suburban Washington 
DC town. “We didn’t have the financial know-how to do it right or the moral flexibility to do it wrong.”

Since that fateful decision to stay, Jessica and her husband, Peter, have made extraordinary efforts to connect their kids (7-1/2 and 5-1/2) to their neighborhood. It hasn’t been easy.

They can’t communicate well with many of their adult neighbors whose first language is Spanish. Also, Jessica and Peter are college-educated, while most of their neighbors are working class. Jessica noted, “Very few people in my neighborhood seemed to want connection, and some days I wasn’t sure I wanted to connect with them.”

As for the kids there, they all speak English, but many use English swear words so often that she doesn’t want her kids to spend time with them unsupervised in the park behind her house. They and their parents also littered in the park routinely, leaving numerous wrappers, cigarette butts, and dog droppings.

I use the past tense – “littered” – because littering is one of the many neighborhood problems in which Jessica has made some impact. “Shortly after we moved there, with my baby daughter in a sling and my son at my side, I picked up trash many times,” says Jessica. “Soon, I noticed some kids there doing the same thing. It’s not as clean as I want it now, but it’s better.”

Indeed, Jessica often walks with her kids in her neighborhood. One of the reasons she and Peter chose to live there was that it’s a very walkable neighborhood. It has a “walk score” (see walkscore.com) of 74, which is very good for a suburban neighborhood.

The neighborhood public school is two blocks from their home, and Jessica walks both of their kids to there and back every day. On walks home they’re joined by a family whose route home passes by their home. Together, they often stumble on to good play opportunities at the school’s field or at kids’ yards along the way.

Jessica also lets her kids play outside often. They play very well on their own in their back yard, and she also lets them play in the playground beyond the gate in the back yard. She observes through the open back door or a window, and she decides how much to supervise depending on which other kids are out there. “If the kids who swear are out there, I’ll be right there, too,” says Jessica. In other cases, she might stay inside and take a look outside every few minutes.

All this neighborhood activity has yielded some good relationships with neighbors. For instance, her kids have become friends with a much older boy, a fifth grader, who lives three doors down because he plays so often in the playground behind their house. Jessica’s relationship with the parents is limited because of a Spanish-English language barrier, but nonetheless, they feel warm toward each other. Jessica’s family is often invited to parties at the boy’s family’s home.

Still, Jessica’s closest friends, as well as her kids’ closest friends, come from outside her immediate neighborhood, with people who are more like her culturally. Most of these parents and kids come from her day care business, which she closed over a year ago. The kids became very comfortable playing at her house when they were in day care, and they still want to come over, rather than host play dates at their houses.

“Even though their houses are much bigger, they come over here and they don’t want to leave,” says Jessica. Jessica and Peter have created a very fun environment for kids in their back yard. With facilitation from them, their kids have created many fun play projects there. One is a long, winding ramp made out of gutters for balls, fruit, and other spherical objects. Another is an obstacle course for chickens made of scrap wood and buckets.

Here's the gutter ramp in the back yard. Don't you want to just step into the photo and check it out yourself?

“It’s very open-ended,” says Jessica. “It’s unique because it’s all about play for kids.” Very few parents with large, expensive houses would drop all pretense of beauty for their back yards.

Unfortunately, neighborhood kids haven’t experienced this magical place, but this will probably change soon. “As my kids get older, their school friends will become more important to them than their ‘imported friends’ from daycare. It is,” notes Jessica, “a slow and steady process” to integrate neighborhood kids into her kids lives.

* A mortgage is said to be “under water” when a home’s value drops below the value of the mortgage, so that the family owes more to the bank than the house is worth..

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