Won't you be my neighbor?

June 6, 2012

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Chicago is oft described as a city of neighborhoods—which is understandable when you consider that there are more than 200 distinct pockets, each with its own identity, history, quirks and perks. Historically, neighborhoods were largely defined by the people and places that occupied and roamed its streets; by the parish and the pub; by the porches and the familiar faces out front. But as many of our most intimate communities move online, have we lost touch of the people right outside our own doors?

Growing up in Chicago's northern suburbs, I knew the names and faces of every family on my block—where they worked and where they worshipped; which neighbors were nice and which were not so nice; which were nosy and which were no good. Our doors were left unlocked and if, for some strange reason, your own home was shut, you walked over to a neighbor’s house to use the phone, kick up your feet and wait for mom or dad to come home to let you inside.

Nowadays, my door has two locks and a baseball bat by the entryway. I’ve lived in my apartment for more than three years but could not tell you the name of any of my neighbors—that’s actually a lie, I know one name: Kerry Wood. But I assure you, if I weren't a sports fan and if every third person in Wrigleyville didn't have his name affixed to their back each summer, I would not know his name or flash him a creepy star-stuck grin on the sidewalk.

Once upon a time, when someone on the sidewalk flashed you a grin, it was considered a friendly gesture…now, it feels more like a confirmation of crazy. People, it seems, tend to be fearless online but increasingly terrified of face-to-face interactions.

There's no denying things have changed. Columbia College history professor Dominic Pacyga has been teaching and writing about Chicago’s historic and evolving neighborhoods for more than 30 years. He says he’s seen a real shift over time—part of it is economic, part of it is technological. But a big part of it, he says, is fear.

“People are simply afraid of other people; that’s increased over time and neighborhoods have broken down,” Pacyga said.

That said, Pacyga grew up in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood and still lives on the city’s South Side—so there must be some reason, some roots, keeping him in the hood.

WBEZ blogger Claire Zulkey likes many things about her Edgewater neighborhood. In her most recent post, she writes that she finds it, “charmingly real, or realistically nice, or whatever combination you want to come up with to describe ‘urban’ and ‘neighborly.’” She also writes that her favorite neighbor is a dive bar called Ollie’s.

Afternoon Shift asked Pacyga, Zulkey and Kathy Chaney, managing editor for the Chicago Defender, to join the show—and you—for a conversation about neighbors.

So tell us: what kind of relationship do you have with your neighbors? What makes a great neighborhood?