Making Good Neighbors, Online and Off

Local networks are bringing people together in Vermont

When Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, moved
from Washington, D.C., to the south end of Burlington, Vermont, in
1998, "we'd landed in what we thought was our dream neighborhood. It was walkable, near the lake, full of trees. But we were having trouble getting to know the neighbors.

One
night, we were sitting around the dinner table talking about it. It hit
us that in the Midwest and the South, where we were from, people
brought cookies to their neighbors. We'd been here a year--where were
our cookies?"

Hence plan one. They baked up a batch
of Toll House specials and delivered them to the neighbors. "We used
china plates, because I figured that way they'd have to return them and
we'd get another conversation," Wood-Lewis recalls. "We never did get
them back. I was kind of dumbfounded. But I don't think it was because
people were rude. I think it's because people are living in a different
culture than they were 50 years ago."

A culture busier and more
distracted than ever--busy enough that even in Vermont, the state with
the biggest rural population percentage in the Union, famous for its
town meetings and its civic engagement, something had changed. So, in
2000, Wood-Lewis cooked up plan two, which may just turn out to be one
of the most innovative (and deceptively obvious) uses of the Internet
so far. In his hands, the Net has become a way to meet not people half
a world away, but half a block.

"I invested $15 at
the copy shop, printed up 400 fliers, and put one on every door in our
neighborhood," Wood-Lewis explains. "It pretty much just said, 'Share
messages about lost cats and block parties.'" Thus was born the Five
Sisters Neighborhood Forum, which he ran as a volunteer effort for six
years. "It took about five minutes a day, and I was already on the
computer anyway," he notes. Every evening he'd compile the five or six
messages that had arrived at his inbox during the day and send them out
in a single e-mail bulletin. That was it.

Someone
would write in: "Neighbors, FYI: Late last night I observed a large
possum ambling across my front yard. Not as bad as a skunk, but I
understand that possums can damage gardens and dig up lawns."
Twenty-four hours later, another neighbor would respond: "They have
very soft feet that aren't good for digging and aren't likely to cause
lawn damage--and they're very clean animals and spend much of their
rest time grooming themselves."

Meanwhile, someone
else had pruned his apples trees and wanted to share the news that he
had kindling piled up on the back porch free for the taking. Down the
street someone's car had been broken into: only thing taken was a gym
bag filled with "my shoes, some sweaty clothes, and a couple of issues
of The New Yorker. If anyone finds it dumped in their shrubbery, let me know."

Forget
the World Wide Web--this one stretched barely four blocks. And no
video, no rating systems, no celebrities, no hyperlinks. Just the daily
rhythm of neighborhood life. "It grew steadily, from 10 or 20 percent
of the neighborhood to the point where by 2006 we had 90 percent of the
neighborhood signed up," says Wood-Lewis.

That's when Cottage Living
magazine included the area in its list of the 10 best neighborhoods in
the country: "And the reporter called me and he said that everywhere
else in the country people would have dozens of different reasons why
their place worked. But here, almost everyone put the e-mail thing on
the list. That's what gave me the confidence."

The confidence to quit his job and start offering the
service across all of Chittenden County, Vermont's most populous.
Within two years, Front Porch Forum(FrontPorchForum.com)
was reaching 15,000 households and participating in more than 100
neighborhood nets; last fall it expanded into Grand Isle County.

Some
nets are in inner-city neighborhoods, where the main topics are how to
fight graffiti and drive away drug dealers; some are in rural towns
where the messages include: "We have four Indian Runner drakes whom we
expected to be females and lay beautiful round eggs. Instead we have
these guys who really need some girls!"

This sounds
like the stuff you'd see in the letters-to-the-editor column, or on the
bulletin board at the supermarket--and it is. But now it comes in an
easy-to-use daily update that somehow breaks down barriers. "My sense
was that this skill of neighborliness had eroded," says Wood-Lewis,
citing data such as Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam's
famous book Bowling Alone. "If you could increase social
capital in a neighborhood--that is, your network of whom you know and
how well you know them--then your involvement increases. If you're
among strangers, you're not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts."

Sound
theoretical? Not long after he'd launched his first forum, one of
Wood-Lewis's neighbors was moving from an apartment to a house across
the street. "They figured they could do it by themselves, but at the
last minute decided they had a couple of big items they'd need some
help with," he says. "So they put a note on the forum saying, 'Come
Sunday at 2'--and 36 people showed up. People didn't just move the
chest of drawers and the bed--they organized into teams and boxed up
the entire contents of the house, moved it across the street, and
unpacked it, all in 90 minutes. I mean, someone pulled the picture
hooks out of the wall in the old place and spackled over the holes. All
the cardboard boxes were broken down and ready for recycling."

The
lucky couple had known at best a dozen of those people before, says
Wood Lewis: "But now they know them all. When they push a stroller
around the block after that, it's like living in a community. And when
the call comes to spend a Saturday helping put in a new park or
something, you know they're going to be there."

The genius of the system flows from the ways it's unlike
the rest of the Web. Instead of going global, each forum is limited to
a neighborhood of about 400 homes. Instead of the anonymity that lets
Internet users happily flame one another, all the folks participating
in these forums clearly identify themselves. "I designed it to be as
simple as possible--to use plain-text e-mail, so that everyone can take
part," Wood-Lewis explains. "I just heard from an 80-year-old
grandmother who'd signed up. She said, 'We've been here 50 years, but
all the people we know have moved away, and we want to stay connected.'
That's the kind of person we want to serve."

The
biggest difference between Front Porch Forum and the rest of the Web,
though, is that its ultimate goal is to get you out from in front of
the screen and into the world around you. "The real feedback loop is on
the main street of town," says Erik Filkorn, in his eighth year on the
select board in Richmond, Vermont. "You'll be coming out of the store
and someone will say, 'Hey Erik, I saw the thing you wrote. Here's what
I think.' You're not just creating an avatar and hanging out in a
singles bar in Second Life--not that I would do that. But this is very much grounded in the flesh-and-blood community."

So grounded that it may already be the most important
source of information for many Vermonters, who have watched their main
newspapers lay off reporters and shrink coverage. "One afternoon last
year the state closed our main bridge as unsafe," recalls Filkorn. "As
a member of the town government, I sent an extra to Michael Wood-Lewis,
and he got the word right out. I think more people got the news that
they'd have to change their morning commutes from him than from the
traditional media."

But it works in emergencies only
because people use it every day--the steady stream of lost cats, and
people looking for summer jobs for their teenagers, creates the
community that people then rely on at more crucial moments. "It's fun,
mostly," says Filkorn. "I remember a post from a guy who said he was
going to a wedding and needed a tuxedo, size 40. Well, I had one. Derek
took it, and he returned it to my office, dry-cleaned."

From
tuxedoes to potholes, from potholes to politics ... Susan Comerford, a
longtime community organizer and now associate dean for academic
affairs and research at the University of Vermont's College of
Education and Social Services, calls it "the best community organizing
tool that's come along in the last 30 or 40 years." To understand its
importance, says Comerford (who started posting on the forum the day
she needed a recommendation for a carpenter), you have to think about
what's happened in the American economy in recent decades.

"It's
not that people care less about community," she notes. "It's that the
economy has shifted how much people have to work to keep up their
standard of living. You don't have one of the two partners home during
the day making all those social connections, providing some sense of
safety to the neighborhood. People have less disposable time than they
used to."

In a world like that, a system that lets
you sit down for 10 minutes at the end of the day and learn what's
happened to your neighbors should, in Comerford's view, earn Wood-Lewis
one of those MacArthur "genius" grants. Wood-Lewis would probably
welcome the recognition of his idea, and the check would come in handy,
too. The forums aren't breaking even yet: Subscriptions are free, and
revenue comes from a few unobtrusive ads at the bottom of each e-mail.
Also, city government pays a fee for the right to post public notices
on the system. "With a few hundred thousand dollars of development
money, we could put this software in a box and set it up anywhere,"
Wood-Lewis predicts.

Which would mean one more good
New England idea spreading out across the country: people everywhere
able to, say, ask their neighbors if they had some topsoil, or maybe a
cake pan. ("I've decided to move beyond my comfort zone and make a
torte for a Passover seder to which I've been invited. For this I'd
need a 9-inch springform pan. Yes, I could buy one. But I'd rather
borrow one for this first and probably only attempt.")

It
would mean that more people could borrow a compost tumbler, or find out
about a new study at the university on the effect of caffeine on
snoring, or see whether anyone wanted to go halves on a grass-fed steer
from a local farmer. It would mean that everyone could see the wish
list for donations for newly arrived African immigrants who'll be
planting gardens come spring (wheelbarrows, rakes, hoes, scales), or
find out about the neighborhood plant swap ("We just want all our
perennials to go to good homes") or which porch to visit if they want
to rummage through big bags of "dress-up and costume clothes." "Seeking
moped repairs," "Ethiopian food available," fourth graders selling
honey-glazed donuts to fund their trip to the science museum (made with
local wheat!).

It would mean we could all be the
good neighbors we'd like to be. "There was a mother near us, with a
teenage daughter who was having a birthday," Wood-Lewis recalls. "The
girl wanted to go canoeing with her friends for her birthday, but when
her mother checked out the price of renting canoes, it was too high.
Her daughter said, 'I see lots of canoes in backyards around here,' but
her mother said, 'You can't just ask people you don't know for their
boats.'

"Still, she put a one-line notice on the
forum, saying they needed six canoes. Before the day was out, people
were coming by. I mean, there were canoes just piling up in their front
yard. She wrote me a note afterwards: 'What a great feeling. What a
great reminder of how to be a community. Why didn't I get to know these
people 10 years ago?'"

Read more in this series by visiting Yankee Magazine's website, here.