If you were to watch a time-elapse video of our neighborhood, you would see the bay waters gradually receding, then trees sprouting into orchards, then homes slowly appearing, getting denser and denser, till you reached 2009, and an orderly but small development of homes occupied the area, located on streets named after birds.
Then the camera would pause on Tuesday, August 4th, 2009, to observe the unusual phenomenon of home-owners slowly trickling out of their sanctuaries, wending their way to a blocked off part of the street, bearing pyrex dishes and foil covered plates, kids trailing behind them on their bikes. Some of the food-bearing adults would be long-time owners, having proudly moved into the neighborhood when the homes were brand new. Other families would have just moved in last week, glad to get the chance to get to know the neighbors.
Little would the latter group know that we were all in the same boat. Whether we moved in last week, last year or in the last decade, we have all been prisoners of our comfortable homes, too busy to make new friendships, and too scared to let our kids bike around the neigborhood alone. We are connected to the whole world, and clueless about our next door neighbors.
So when one enterprising homeowner in our little community decided to put together a flier inviting us to the National Night Out, we decided it was time to put aside our virtual friends for a couple of hours and make some real ones.
National Night Out was started in 1984, as a crime prevention initiative. the idea was that if people knew and were friends with their neighbors, they would look out for them and alert them to any suspicious activity. More active communities could also set up “neighborhood watches” where members would take turns patrolling the area at night to reduce crime. The first year about 2.5 million people participated. By last year, that number had grown to 34.5 million.
We discovered how popular the event had become when we went to request the Fremont Police to come to our event. About 120 events had been planned in the city and the officers were stretched thin. While in previous pre-recession years the police would come bearing gifts for the kids and sage advice for the adults, this year we had to make do with stickers and police volunteers, but we were lucky to be able to spend a little time with at least one officer, who patiently heard our grievances and scared the kids into safer biking habits.
But the best part of the event was getting to know the people who live around us and seeing the diversity that has crept into the neighborhood. Name-tags were necessary, much to our shame, but we exchanged emails and phone numbers, determined to meet more often that once a year. Kids were astonished to discover that they had potential friends living just a few doors away; imagine the number of missed opportunities for playdates. The men, as usual, gravitated to each other to discuss politics and crime. The women clucked over the recipes and planned for doggy bags.
When the event wound down by nightfall, we picked up our dishes and foldable chairs and reluctantly started back home. Even now I am not sure I can match the names to the faces or the faces to the the houses, but at least, when I see a friendly face on my evening walks or bike rides, I know I will wave and get a wave back. I know that in case of an emergency, I can knock on any door and be assured of help. That’s what National Night Out was created for and it meets its goal admirably.