I Miss The Wild Neighborhoods

Nextdoor.com is supposed to build community, so why are posts so negative?

Jen McGahan
Sep 29, 2020 · 12 min read
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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When I was a kid, one street in Erie, Pennsylvania was my domain. Our street was in an unincorporated part of town with a gravel road, no sidewalks, and small houses on huge yards an acre or more. All backyards counted as cut-throughs as long as the weeds were not too tall to walk. For several years before the hill across the street was developed, we kids roamed a world that expanded so far in all directions, it seemed we’d never run out of territory to explore.

A domain less than half a square mile

Our neighborhood felt like a universe. My sister and I and our friends knew nothing of boundaries. We wandered the whole neighborhood, making up rules and games as the day required.

We knew each house by name. If we knew the kid who lived there, it was “Norah’s house,” for example, or “Wendy’s house.” Otherwise, we used some other distinguishing characteristic: the yellow house or the mean guy’s house.

One of the houses, we called the trick-or-treat house. It was a small, yellow bungalow in the middle of the street, hidden from the road by a clutch of shade trees and shrubbery. In any season, if we went up to the door and said the magic words, the old woman who answered would shuffle to her kitchen and bring us candy.

That first time, it was Debbie’s idea. Debbie was in my grade at school. Her house smelled tangy and weird and it had a piano that no one played, which I couldn’t understand. Before my parents finally got me a piano of my own, I would’ve been content to play hers every day. But Debbie was an outgoing, outdoor kid and we usually did what she wanted to do. This often bordered on something we might get in trouble for, like trying on her big sister’s makeup or sneaking into my dad’s garden shed.

So one afternoon after school, we leaned our bikes against the overgrowth near this nice neighbor’s side door and knocked. Even though it wasn’t Halloween, we tried the words, grinning, and full of ourselves. Wearing a housedress and apron (just like my grandma), and thin white socks and slippers (not like my grandma at all), she played our game and fetched us some hard Christmas candy. Over time, she’d welcome us inside and serve us something sweet. Cake or small cups of pop.

This was boring to Debbie, so sometimes I went by myself and sat on the woman’s ancient flowered sofa on the back porch, and sucked on a piece of hard candy or a cookie. I have no idea what we talked about. Eventually, Debbie and I outgrew trick or treating and I lost track of my only old-woman friend.

Another house of interest was on the corner, at the top of a hill, a magnificent house, as I remember it, with pillars(!) and a driveway so large we kids saw it as an open invitation to ride our bikes there. No cars ever parked there, so what other purpose could it serve? With black asphalt so smooth and black, “Gross’s Driveway” was the ideal spot for bike tricks. It was worth riding the long, pebbly dirt road to get there.

I recently toured the current “street view” on Zillow (my old house is up for sale right now) and was rewarded with a view of the same asphalt driveway, stitched together with grassy cracks and a modest ranch house at its end.

The largess of a child’s memory…

Everyone savors the richness of childhood. Memories from before adolescence hold mystery and beauty even if life was harsh; and a whiff of danger, no matter how idyllic your early years. I’m no different.

We spent every minute outside, from the time we got home from school until dusk. We built forts with found junk, squished the feathery meat out of cattails, dropping their feathery clumps into puddles. We exposed the silvery scales of milkweed seeds, breaking them into the wind, or made pies out of leaves and mud that resembled peanut butter. Then went home and had Hamburger Helper for dinner.

I sometimes wonder if, in the 70s, there was some secret neighborhood meeting between adults where they’d compare notes and decide that everything we were doing was a-OK with the neighbors; an “I can live with that” meeting. Half the stuff we did, it never occurred to me to ask permission.

But I wonder, did Mrs. Gross ever call my mom and say, “Ginger, really I can’t have your kids doing bike stunts on my driveway”? I seriously doubt it. She chased us off a few times, telling us it wasn’t a good time, etc. So we obeyed (we weren’t rude kids), but we always came back.

Every day was new.

Dangerous fun, no training wheels, making bad decisions, making good decisions — decisions made without parental supervision are the ones kids remember.

I always hoped my kids would have the same freedom to explore. I pictured a childhood that took place outside, if not in nature at least outside the house, among neighbors I didn’t feel the need to vet.

Paying it forward

My ex and I, we raised our kids in a similar neighborhood in the early 2000s — the equivalent of West 57th Street c. 1973, but with bigger houses.

Spicewood, Texas is just outside Austin city limits, and in the early 2000s, before the extreme growth, it was virtually country.

My children had woods, rock walls, and streams to explore. I hope they remember Bee Creek as a wonderland and the two acres of cedar and oak behind our house as a limitless forest. I used to walk around back acres when it was time to bury a pet hamster or some such mom-job, and I’d find tools pilfered from the garage, ropes hanging from trees, minute assemblages of toys, feathers, and beads (homes to fairies or lizards, maybe), knives I thought had gone missing forever, and later, beer cans. I knew they had fun.

The only dearth of resources was time and freedom — and other neighbor kids. Since we didn’t live in a proper neighborhood with sidewalks and a community pool, my kids were isolated and had to play with each other most days.

And in just over one generation, we had usurped the commodity of free time from our children. The rules mandate that good parents keep a closer eye on their children than mine ever did.

Does this help or hurt kids? I’m still torn over it.

Some supervision is necessary

I’m not that Gen Xer who claims that childhood was better back then, just different. There were people and situations which might have been diffused with more expertise and compassion if we kids had the wherewithal and social sophistication of kids 40 years in the future. But maybe I’m romanticizing today’s generation a bit.

There was this boy in my old neighborhood. I still think about him and feel some shame that I was complicit in something that could be called bullying although, at nine years old, I was only a disturbed spectator. He did stuff like eat gravel and spit from the ground while other kids stood around and watched. He’d ask the neighbor kids to “dare” him.

I felt sorry for the boy, a couple of years younger than me, or maybe just uncomfortable around him. But as a child, thoughts like “the trajectory of life” couldn’t have even taken shape then. It was just worry seeded in astonishment, as is my nature. The most I would have said was “You probably shouldn’t do that,” but I certainly never told a parent.

His story is one that should have been shared with someone more mature than us kids. Adult intervention would have been a good thing. And yet…

I supposed my children, too, had the most exciting experiences when adults weren’t looking. This is childhood. Dangerous fun, no training wheels, making bad decisions, making good decisions — decisions made without parental supervision are the ones kids remember.

Most of the fun my kids had was squeezed in between the activities I scheduled for them. They pretty much tell me this outright. We’re honest with each other that way.

Early life was analog, then came the iPhone

One thing we didn’t have to worry about in those early years was social media.

My kids became aware of themselves at about the time social media stole real life from families. They must have sensed the theft of privacy because my children were always leery of my picture taking. If they’d have been all smiles and sweetness, I’d have posted pics of them way more often, I confess. When they refused to pose, I pouted, “Why don’t you let me take nice pictures of you?” They protected their vulnerability.

Today, I honor them for that. I somehow distilled in them their dignity. In spite of myself.

I judge my parenting as harshly as the most Karen-of-Karens, and yet… some days I just want to jump off the cliff of accountability. I want off this train. And for future parents, If I could bless you with something different, something better, I would.

We’ll figure it out, though. This is a perfect time.

You can take watchfulness too far

The other day I saw a post on my community’s NextDoor.com site that made almost made me opt out completely.

Someone had Ring-caught two “backpackers” walking through her yard. She said “…because we haven’t noticed any damage or anything, but strangers walking through your yard is disconcerting especially since there is no public access to the back. Etc.” She went on to describe “hiker #1, gray shirt, red pants, dark hair, and hiker #2, etc.” She documented the whole thing, in words and video.

Turns out the culprits were just a couple looking for their cat.

The cat searcher piped up in the comments when she saw herself there on the social site. Besides revulsion, I couldn’t help feeling what a waste of time it was. Both the posting and the combined minutes it took for no less than dozens of neighbors to comment on this egregious act, issuing dire warnings about weird people trespassing on our beautiful, safe neighborhood. Not to mention the time I spent mulling it over.

We already give the digital world access to our lives. Why do we distrust our flesh-and-blood neighbors?

Sometimes I want to fly so far away from here but where would I go? Where there are no video cameras and phones to snap your every move if I could. This planet is already contaminated with cell phones. Have we gone too far to ever get it back?

I didn’t delete the app, but I turned off notifications. Even if it means I miss alerts about missing cats.

Free-Range Kids

A few years ago I started following the work of Lenore Skenazy, who let her 8-year-old son ride the subway around New York City. People eviscerated her for neglecting her protective duties as a mom. But some saw her as a hero. When did it become illegal for children to walk home from a neighborhood park in broad daylight? Or for children to have a subway or bus pass in their home town? Her infamy started a movement for parents like me who wanted validation that the world is not as scary a place as people would have you believe.

Today, because my daughter died an unnatural death before her adult brain grew together, I’m disqualified for any “Good Parent” awards. The failure is deep and I own it. She insisted on managing her life before her executive decision-making abilities kicked into gear. Her risk management and long-term planning skills were far from perfect, although her vivacity disguised much. I watched her life take shape like this without knowing how far from shore she’d drifted.

I will never confuse independence and maturity again, trust me.

So where does that leave the average parent worried about a child‘s’ freedom, creativity, intellectual agility, and safety? I, who believed in the free-range-kid movement, yet lost my child all the same.

A parent must choose.

I met a woman recently who had a fenced-in yard in an affluent suburb; she said she hangs out with her children in their backyard, which would paint the picture of family bliss until she added that she couldn’t leave them alone there.

Curious, I asked this mother, “Why do you need to be in your fenced-in yard while your 6 and 8-year old children play?” Her response: “I just don’t feel comfortable with that big a yard. We’re not used to it. We’re from California.”

When my daughter was in wilderness treatment as a teenager, which she later claimed were some of the best times of her life, she wrote that she hated it when I watched her play as a toddler. (Revelations like these are the great moments in family therapy.)

She was an imaginative girl who relished playing in solitude but craved friends to enact her adventures with. She envisioned a world of barriers for the pure joy of battering them down. I suppose I made her nervous, although from my perspective I was one of the slackier of slacker moms.

I tried to give her the creative space she needed, which was an obscene amount. She navigated the world of strangers and awkward situations like a wild animal in its habitat. The community at large wasn’t menacing to her; it would be her personal, domestic relationship that did her in. I think about her aversion to confinement a lot these days…

Just in case you’re wondering who am I to talk.

I wondered aloud to my younger mom friend, if maybe sometimes the kids wanted to go outside and play — without mom.

She considered that for a second, then added something about animals being around. Her choice presupposed that yards are scary. So be it.

But if your yard is scary, if you post scenes from your life on social media and you also let your kids play soccer, what does that tell the kids? That they can’t be trusted to take even the smallest of risks. That a structured, digital safety net will protect them from all the dangers of grass and trees and dogs and swingsets and strangers.

Maybe her yard and neighborhood are not the safest places to play. But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t she move her family somewhere the kids can play in freedom? A velvet-lined cell, perhaps?

How scary is too scary?

This is a question I wish people would ask themselves more often.

Unfortunately, the way people use Nextdoor.com just makes me sad because some use it to sow seeds of suspicion and resentment among my community.

Nextdoor.com states its mission:

“It’s where communities come together to greet newcomers, exchange recommendations, and read the latest local news. Where neighbors support local businesses and get updates from public agencies. Where neighbors borrow tools and sell couches. It’s how to get the most out of everything nearby. Welcome, neighbor.”

And yet, every time I get a notification from the social site, it’s almost always a post that makes me want to retreat, not show up, shut my drapes, or move away. There’s always something terrible afoot. Some ominous, churlish, vigilante sentiment that doesn’t reflect my experience here. As if evil is about to bubble over at any moment.

And yet, take a walk around the neighborhood; by all outward respects, this is a decent community.

I worry that as people, we’re trying to remove the unknown from real life, without even understanding why. At the same time, we’re in each other’s business like never before. As parents, we could be having more fun, yes, even during COVID.

Parents are stretched beyond their imagination. Who could have predicted this year? Yet, what a perfect time for our children to see with their own eyes the wonder of a neighborhood where other people look and behave in ways their immediate family doesn’t. This takes a little slack and trust in human strangers.

Instead of pretending that our private square footage is fraught with natural and unnatural acts of violence and mayhem, like the wild west, maybe we could allow small moments of chaos caught on a Ring camera (like those cat hunters) to take place without commentary. If this pandemic teaches us anything, let it be to not lose our minds over someone causing no harm at all.

Via the internet, we open so much of our private lives to the world but freak out in fear when something ordinary happens in our own back yards, or a stranger makes eye contact with our children. We already give the digital world access to our lives. Why do we distrust our flesh-and-blood neighbors?

Back to the kids

My children are teenagers now. They don’t play outside near the house anymore; They’ve graduated to skate parks and golf courses, but there’s a small flock of kids who ride bikes and scooters around a nearby cul de sac, and one kid who bounces a basketball around his driveway like an addict. If my sons were younger, I’ll bet they’d be roaming as a pack with the neighbors.

I’m relieved there are still parents who give their kids a long leash, even in these scary, “unprecedented” times.

We’ll all be safer and happier if we allow children to explore the universe on foot. How far could they go?

From the window of my office, I have a small view of the pretty-good-after-all street where I live. I also read a lot, and teach persuasive writing, copywriting, and other stuff writers care about. To start, here are 5 words that move mountains.

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Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

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