The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once compared the human race to a pack of porcupines on a chilly winter's night. The colder it gets, he said, the more we huddle. But if we move too close to one another, we stick each other with quills. Nowhere is this balancing act more acute than in our neighborhoods. How close do Americans really want to be with the folks next door - best buddies or just casual acquaintances?
The answer depends on who you ask. In an exclusive survey for American Demographics by research firm Market Facts, 45 percent of adults say their ideal neighborhood is a tight-knit place where people organize block parties and look out for each other's kids. Another 40 percent desire a community where people say hello now and then, but mostly keep to themselves. A full 13 percent prefer that their closest neighbor live five miles down the road. Boomer households crave privacy even more: 22 percent of 35-to-44-year-olds wish several acres separated them from their nearest neighbor.
Middle-aged boomers may not like nosy people peeking over their fence, but they lean on them for help. In the past six months, one out of three Americans aged 45 to 54 asked a neighbor to collect their mail or newspaper while they were away. Nationally, 24 percent of adults had a neighbor pick up their mail and 15 percent had someone accept a delivery from them. Fourteen percent called on a neighbor to care for their pet when they were out of town. Wealthy households don't hesitate to ask a favor - four out of ten households making $75,000 or more have asked a neighbor to hold their mail while they were traveling.
In general, though, most Americans (61 percent) don't turn to their neighbors for assistance. Young adults aged 18 to 24 are even less inclined to ask a favor of the lady next door - 72 percent have not requested any help in the past six months. Maybe that's because 29 percent of them don't know who their neighbors are, 13 percentage points greater than the national average. Overall, 64 percent of those polled say they visited with their neighbors last week, 12 percent in the past month. Who's most likely to chat up the Smiths at least once a week? Midwesterners (70 percent), retirees (76 percent), 55-to-64-year-olds (78 percent), and people who ask their neighbors for help (85 percent).
If Americans could change one aspect of their neighborhood, one out of five would add more parks and open spaces, 19 percent would spruce up the area's overall appearance, and another 19 percent would like more community activities. Seven percent of those polled would welcome more diversity to their area. The leading edge of echo boomers (adults aged 18 to 24) are more likely to favor neighborhood activities than older generations (31 percent versus 16 percent among 45 to 54 year olds).
"The pendulum is swinging back the other way," says Ray Oldenburg, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida and author of The Great Good Place, a book that examines the importance of gathering places in communities. "In the 1950s and 1960s, status was the thing in real estate. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, security was the thing. We favored protection from our community instead of connection to it. Our house was a retreat from society. Now, the major theme in real-estate marketing is community."
But how much of that sense of community is real, and how much is fabricated to attract new people to the area? Oldenburg witnessed this first-hand on a trip to Celebration, Florida, the small town developed by the Walt Disney Company. He dropped by the town's diner for breakfast one morning and was told that breakfast ended at ten o'clock. "It was three minutes after ten and they wouldn't serve me," he says. "That so-called friendly diner was as fake as the town hall across the street."