Design Neighborliness

The Importance of Proximity in Community

This essay originally appeared in Verily Magazine in October, 2021

Roughly a year ago (13 months to be exact), I found myself sitting in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car, clutching a baby fiddle leaf fig tree I had bought from Trader Joe’s in Austin two hours earlier. I was fresh off a plane from New York City, having decided in a few days of bizarre but Spirit-led spontaneity, to move from Brooklyn to Waco, Texas for a nine-month theology program. The same friend driving me had completed the program a year earlier and now we would be roommates.

I had never been to Waco before, but I was fairly optimistic. After a childhood of moving often and ten years of traveling frequently as an adult, what could faze me? “We’re here!” My friend smiled as we pulled off the highway. It was late, but from my window I could see enough of the approaching city to realize that Waco could. My stomach dropped and I began to wonder what I had done.

At that moment, I began a long year of culture shock, grief, anger, and frustration as I adjusted to life in a hot, sprawled-out, car-centric city with no metro system, bodegas, sidewalk cafés or street music.

Within a week of arriving, I was convinced that the moment this program ended, I would be hightailing it back to the Northeast. But nine months later, I found myself standing with a circle of friends and announcing with equal amounts confidence and surprise that I would be staying in Waco for at least another year.

Home away from home

My decision to stay in Texas was largely intuitive, but one significant reason was that I could see how Waco afforded me the chance to build a community based on proximity, a kind of community I had craved all my life but that had, until now, eluded me.

Community is in demand these days. Brands, political movements, religious groups, even coffee shops offer community as part of their identities. While these communities are based on shared interests, preferences, and beliefs, a community of proximity is based on one simple fact: I live close to you.

Community of proximity is the kind of community we see exemplified in much-loved TV shows like Seinfeld. Jerry and Kramer are literal neighbors; Elaine pops by unannounced. We see it in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And we see it in the classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Even if we haven’t experienced it firsthand, we have an idea of what it must have been like to know and trust one’s neighbors, to feel that they could be called upon to assist in ordinary life, to feel seen and known in one’s neighborhood.

A scarce but much-needed resource

Community of proximity is one of the highest-value types of community one can build because it reduces uncertainty and makes our world feel safer. Yet, it’s the hardest form of community to build. Today, our friend groups and “communities” are more likely to be based on shared interest, class, lifestyle, and shared contexts like work and church. Knowing one’s neighbors, let alone including them in our circles, is increasingly rare.

Why is this the case? As American neighborhoods have been designed to accommodate the car for almost a century, dispersed urban design puts jobs and businesses farther away from home, at the same time as increasing demand for entertainment media such as radio, TV shows, and now, social media. Walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are hard to come by: most of us can’t conduct ordinary life in a visible way close to where we live. All in all, the distinctly American neighborly porch culture that once characterized many of our small towns has become nearly extinct.

Don’t get me wrong: I had many meaningful relationships in New York City, but very few of my friends lived close to me. It was hard to get to know my neighbors (although I was lucky to have one neighbor/friend). I rarely had people recognize me by name as I moved around my neighborhood and no matter how much I craved it, friends and neighbors never “popped by” unannounced.

Neighborhood association

My experience of proximate community in Waco started with my church but it branched out when I joined my neighborhood association. As one of the oldest forms of community organizing, neighborhood associations have a mixed reputation. On one hand, they connect neighbors who might not have otherwise met; they can form powerful political coalitions and can meaningfully improve the safety and desirability of their neighborhood. But they’re also known for being hubs of negativity, complaining, and fighting good ideas (mostly housing construction) that could help cities become more affordable.

Fortunately, my experience with the association I joined has been overwhelmingly positive. With membership down due to COVID, the leadership team has been extremely receptive to new ideas about the purpose, culture, and goals of the group; as a result, it’s led to many interesting conversations and creative ideas. Most of all, it’s become the foundation for meeting my neighbors and building a community based simply on the fact that I live near these people.

I just moved, so I am still learning who lives close to me. It’s not all roses and cupcakes. . . I don’t expect to know all of my neighbors or to have things in common with all of them. I don’t even expect that my reaching-out will be reciprocated and I know there’s always a chance of hospitality and friendship being abused. But that’s the point. Building this community of proximity takes courage because we don’t know who we will run into. But this is exactly the gift of proximate community. It’s precisely because we can’t control who’s included in our community that we are challenged to grow in a certain kind of love.

Reaching out requires courage

One of my friends at work talks often about agape love. It’s one of the four Greek definitions of love—the kind of love that’s easy to talk about and hard to live out. Agape is the kind of love you show people who you might otherwise not choose to associate with, the unexpected characters who cross your path. Agape means turning to these people with attention, a willingness to listen, and gracious assumptions. It doesn’t mean pulling them close or even considering them a friend, but it does mean considering them worth your time.

I have found that facing the uncertainty of our neighborhood puts us in a situation where we have to learn to live out agape love. It’s this kind of love that’s needed with people we like and people we have already chosen to befriend. With those friends, love comes easy (or easier at least). With neighbors, Agape love is a gamble. We may not like them. We may not get along with them. We may wish we had never said hello. Yet it’s only in taking this risk that we will grow in the unique capacity to love people who owe us nothing and who may not love us back.

Learning to grow in this kind of love is good in its own right. If anything else, we should be befriending our neighbors for the sake of growing in this virtue. But building a community of proximity has practical benefits. Long-time neighbors can help orient you to where you live by sharing historical context and practical tips. Others can watch your house when you’re traveling or your kids while they play. And, in a moment of crisis, the neighbor next door is probably more helpful than the friend or family member twenty-plus minutes away.

Even though I don’t know how long I will live in Waco, and even though I miss the food, culture, and vibrancy of big-city life, I’m easing into life here. I have several friends whose places I can just “pop by” unannounced. My neighbors recognize me on my bike most mornings and wave hello. I’m working at the farmer’s market with my neighbor and am always inviting friends with kids to come jump on the huge trampoline that sits in the backyard.

Big-city living has its own merits, which I will heartily defend in an instant. But, next to my love of getting lost in Brooklyn or wandering the streets of Rome and Paris, I am learning to situate simpler loves: bringing over my neighbor’s mail, stopping to talk to the lady I see almost every day at my favorite café, waving to my neighbor as he bikes past, and walking down a street, knowing the names behind several homes.