If you yearn for the days when everyone gathered around a neighbor's grill or called out a greeting to the kids pedaling by on their bikes, don't despair. With some kind words and a few friendly gestures, you can recapture those times. Here are 21 ways to create a more caring community.
Plan to party. The Flamingo Park neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida, takes advantage of year-round sunshine by having quarterly block parties — complete with band, tent in the street and a row of grills for barbecuing. For more frequent socializing, residents take turns hosting monthly happy-hour gatherings.
Think casual. Parties can seem ominous if everyone doesn't already know each other. When K.P. Weseloh first moved to Princeton, New Jersey, she hosted a "bring your own spoon" ice-cream social. She sent out invitations asking neighbors to RSVP with their three favorite ice cream flavors.
Be quirky. Out-of-the-ordinary ideas, like a Baltimore neighborhood's annual croquet tournament, often draw people out of their shells. "Afterward, we drink champagne punch, nibble on finger food and chicken kabobs, and schmooze," says Mary Medland. Try this similar idea: Spread a mini-golf game throughout your neighborhood, with a different hole on each person's front lawn.
Be silly. In Maplewood, New Jersey, Barbara Heisler Williams and nearly 30 women aged 30 to 75 — many of whom didn't know each other well — had a "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" weekend with lots of giddy girl-talk, workshops, cooking and pampering. "The next week, when I went to my house of worship and saw some of the women, there were big hugs," she says. "Now there's a whole different relationship."
Need a reason to invite the neighbors over? Gather for the sake of the kids or pets. Plan Halloween parties or Easter egg hunts. Or try a dog party, inviting a few pups as a way to meet their human companions. Provide dog treats from a local pet store and human treats from your pantry. Let the dogs run around your yard while the owners get to know each other.
Get organized. "The more structure you have and the more likely everything will work out well," says Linda Cullen, past president of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. She has successfully headed up everything from its newsletter to city hall battles to improve a local park.
Find any excuse — misdelivered mail, arriving home at the same time — to chat in person. "Seeing each other's faces is just as important as the verbal connection," says Naomi Drew, author of Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World (Kensington).
Be predictable. Just walking your dog at the same time every day can spark friendships that last for years. "I never would have described my New York city neighborhood as a 'community' — until we got a dog," says Lisa Hanock-Jasie. "Pets are a terrific ice-breaker. Not only do we talk about our dogs, we talk about our lives."
Create a group e-mail list so keeping in touch is easy. Alert neighbors to news and upcoming events, or rally around a neighbor in need.
Write a newsletter worth reading. Include city-related news that affects your neighborhood, discuss projects everyone can be involved in, promote a House of the Month, etc. Include classifieds (free, of course) for everything from items for sale to baby-sitting services.
Designate block captains. More than 20 people volunteer to be block captains for the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. They deliver the quarterly newsletter door-to-door, welcome new neighbors and serve as the lookouts for anyone on their block who is in trouble or needs something.
Always say hello. In the post office, grocery store or as people drive by your house, a quick smile and nod to strangers builds bonds. "We all long to connect with people and be valued in life. It helps us think, I have meaning here, I have a place here," says Leslie Levine, author of Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home? (Contemporary Books).
Make little things count. When one of her neighbors is out of town, Margaret Littman of Chicago hauls his trash cans to the curb, turns off his sprinkler timer if it rains and accepts his UPS packages.
Be there in times of need. When one Chandler, Arizona man's wife was diagnosed with cancer, his neighbors immediately circled the wagons. "One of us put together a schedule, and we all took turns cooking dinner for the family from January until late June, after his wife had died," says Maliha Weintraub.
When Judi Kirkwood's son was unexpectedly hospitalized for a few weeks, her Madison, Wisconsin, neighbors decided to mow her lawn all summer. "They wanted us to have one less thing to worry about," she says.
Exchange house keys for emergencies. "Getting locked out can ruin your day," Levine notes. And if you've been known to lock yourself out of your car, consider giving a trusted neighbor a copy of your car key, too.
Tackle projects as a team. The Jane Street Association in New York City, made up of residents from a five-block stretch of Greenwich Village, received dozens of daffodil bulbs from over a million bulbs that Holland gave to the city after 9/11. Neighbors gathered to help plant them on their tree-lined streets.
Combine resources to earn extra dough. In Glocester, Rhode Island, Kristen Zambarano and 16 of her neighbors all held their own yard sale on the same Saturday. One person handled the newspaper ads and the rest pitched in to put up yard-sale signs on a nearby road. The urban equivalent? The Jane Street Association has a street sale every year. "It's like a multi-family garage sale, except we also have artists and crafts people," says chairperson Paula Feddersen.
Identify a common goal. Cynthia Barnes and her neighbors in the historic East Campus section of Columbia, Missouri, gather every Tuesday to pick up errant trash in the neighborhood. "Afterward we admire each other's yards and then share a glass of wine on someone's porch."
Find a buddy. Ask the woman who always jogs by if she'd like company a few mornings a week — you'll make a friend and get fit at the same time.
Share. Instead of each homeowner investing in his own circular saw, extension ladder or fertilizer spreader, chat with neighbors about creating a co-op. Everyone contributes the equipment they have and can borrow whatever they need. A baby-sitting or carpooling co-op can work just as well.