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The 21st Century neighborhood

Over the last several months, I've nestled into a cozy corner of a south Minneapolis neighborhood.

Neighborhood -- what does that mean nowadays? It's something I've thought a lot about since moving back to Minnesota, and it directs the next series of articles I'll be writing.

The connection with those who live near us has decreased, from what I can tell. Walking by someone on the sidewalk in front of your house might not even garner an acknowledgement. I have recently been asking friends if they know the people living across the hall from their apartments. They always say no.

Just because someone lives nearby doesn't compel many of us to open up as it once did. We've invested our social lives elsewhere -- for a couple of reasons:

1.) Globalization: The script of settling down in your 20s in a neighborhood with like peers has changed. Someone moves next door and has a different religion, background, ethnicity, language. There's a lot there you may not relate to, so you feel less inclined, and have less opportunity, to get to know the person. Globalization also might mean you're more likely to travel about and not be so domesticated.

2.) Technology: It used to be that your neighborhood was the main outlet for social interaction. But today, we're less compelled to start a relationship based solely on proximity when we can just turn on our computer to a selection of people who, chances are, offer you more to connect with.

This is all understandable, but we still share with our neighbors that most intimate of traits -- the place we call home. Keeping the cohesion is important.

So the topic inspired some action.

Earlier this winter, I visited with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak about how, similarly, an entire city may lessen its cohesion because of the above factors. I said to the mayor that the city should compel residents to stay connected and participate in shaping the city. The city should also embrace technology to connect with their citizens. And on the other side of the coin, the city should reduce any blockage that prevents citizens from wanting to stay in touch.

For example, there's nothing that makes a citizen more put off by a city than getting a ticket for a law they had no way of knowing existed. (In Minneapolis, for instance, it's illegal to warm up your car with the keys in the ignition. Who knew? -- until you get ticketed.) I first suggested to Rybak that the city should just remove the use of tickets and fines from the general budget altogether. This would reduce citizen suspicion that people are ticketed for fundraising, and remove city financial incentive from people's law-breaking. He empathized with the sentiment, but indicated no interest in doing that. So I suggested the city use technology to give citizens a better chance to know what some common unknown ordinances are. For this, they're having me write an article on such laws in the city.

But I also found out that the city does a lot to keep the connection between citizen and city strong, such as events and neighborhood outreach task forces. As well, Minneapolis uses technology by letting citizens know about snow emergencies via text message and email.

So if the city does its part, what about the citizen? It was time to zero back in to the neighborhood. And in my own particular backyard, the idea of a tightly knit neighborhood seemed an even greater intrigue given the rainbow of people here -- Asians, Somali, a plurality of Hispanics -- and with them their language, cultural and behavioral divisions.

I attended a recent neighborhood meeting. It was your typical community gathering: metal folding chairs, coffee, and a sign-in desk in a "classroom" within this former school-turned-community center. Two tables for Somali and Spanish translation were set up. However, none came to take advantage. About 40 other people showed up, though -- most white, but also several blacks and a couple of Hispanics. They were talking budget, deciding how to spend a chunk of money. Sounds like fun, right?

Surveys had previously gone out to the residents to determine community opinions. One white bilingual man stood and stated his difficulties getting Hispanics to participate in taking the survey. A Hispanic woman responded that her community does want to participate but may not feel comfortable when they aren't sure what is going on. A black man rose and felt the survey didn't represent the actual demographic breakdown of the 8,200 residents in our neighborhood.

It's tricky to bring people together, and our differences can sometimes be a real roadblock in this effort. I can imagine the challenge for most immigrants. They come from the surroundings of their own homogenous communities and into the mixing pot of this neighborhood. They, naturally, like to create pockets of comfort, social groups with like-kind to speak, celebrate and worship with.

But the people speaking up at the meeting all had the courage to put aside, or at least face, the differences and advocate for a better place to live. Neighborhoods may not be as tight as they once were, but these folks realize that when we don't communicate and understand each other, we make assumptions and judgments and have suspicions. The potential for blame and resentment grows toward, and empathy doesn't exist for, those outside your group.

Cohesion in a diverse neighborhood isn't just important; it's vital.

Though I didn't have much to add to the conversation about the funding, I did meet other members of the neighborhood organization about some committee work. And next week, I'll introduce you to what I started doing at the street level.

BRANDON FERDIG blogs at Email him at