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Who are the people in your neighborhood?

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I remember being a kid "out in the country" in rural Beltrami County. Les and Betty, an older married pair, lived across the street from us. Betty was a petite, nice and gentle woman. Les, her husband, had a strong personality; he kind of scared my brothers and me with his stern expression and halting speech.

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Back then, we would literally walk across the street to ask Betty for a cup of sugar. And once in a while, Les would break out the accordion and play some polka on his porch on a summer evening.

I don't know if it was because it was rural living, or because it was 20 years ago, but we knew all our neighbors within a few miles.

Okay, now it's your turn. Who were your neighbors growing up? And how about we bring it to the present: Who are your neighbors now? After moving into my new neighborhood here in Minneapolis, that's exactly what I wanted to find out.

If you don't know the folks living nearby, you're not alone. Not long ago, it dawned on me how none of my friends knew the people living across the street from their homes. Similarly, I found this same lack of familiarity for those across the hall from friends in their apartment buildings.

Last week I wrote about the reasons for this distancing -- globalization and technology. And the result means less connectivity to those who are close by. This isn't bad by itself, but if taken too far, it can create quite a gap between yourself and those closest to you. So being aware of this lack of "social capital," as one sociologist puts it, I made it a point to buck this trend.

I settled into one of the many cozy old homes in the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis. The location is convenient, there's a great park nearby and the neighborhood is ... well, let's just say it's gotten a lot better over the last 10 years. This is according to my neighbors.

One of the first things I noticed after moving in was the graffiti. Little gang wannabes, I believe, but you never know. Another thing I recognized, having just come back from living in China, was that I retained my minority status. Most of the residents living around my home are a combination of Hispanic, black and smaller populations of Asian, Somali, and Native American folks.

It's an interesting place for me -- not just as someone who digs other cultures and languages, but as someone considering the effects of the ever-changing dynamics in our cities and neighborhoods. I know this higher-than-normal diversity can inhibit neighborly cohesion. But at the same time, it was precisely this diversity that inspired me to bring everyone together.

Just days after moving in last September, I returned from a walk one afternoon when I encountered an older Vietnamese woman sun-drying herbs on the street curb in front of her house. She knew some English, so we talked food for a few moments. Soon, a Somali man approached us and offered some words of his own about his native cuisine. Then a couple of days after that, I had a conversation with a Native American woman who also lives nearby, and she talked a bit about the foods she grew up with.

"Boy," I thought, "just like first Thanksgiving brought two peoples together, so could a food festival bring together all the people right here in Central."

I then considered the other groups -- the Hispanics and blacks and their respective eats, and I imagined a gathering of people representing almost every continent, with folks venturing around to try others' foods and getting to know their neighbors while at it.

I know, it's pie-in-the-sky stuff, and heck, maybe my words about multiculturalism decreasing social interaction will manifest and sabotage the success of such an event.

That's the polarizing truth to a mixed neighborhood like mine. It provides such an observatory for simultaneous segregation and integration. It provides to each person living here a chance to appreciate those with whom you share commonalities and, at the same time, those who offer you something new. And it provides a unique chance to discover how we can define the dynamics of a modern neighborhood.

I'm hoping more can see that our differences are precisely why we ought to interact. I'll keep you posted about this food festival idea.

But mixed or not, I'm also hoping to show you that right down your street -- or across your hall -- there are a lot of interesting and inspiring people with noteworthy lives and lessons. I'm finding this out by knocking on my neighbors' doors and sitting down with them for an hour.

Starting next week, I will answer the question: "Who are the people in my neighborhood?"

Answer: Some surprising, eye-opening individuals.

Stay tuned.

BRANDON FERDIG blogs at newplateaus.areavoices.com. Email him at brandon@newplateaus.com.

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