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Originally published Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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In hard times, an uptick in "neighboring"

Neighbors are reaching out to talk about crime and economy, helping others through job losses and organizing potlucks.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When Kris Kumaroo founded a new neighborhood association in October, he was driven by a desire to combat recession-era problems such as vacant homes and petty crime.

Seven months later, suburban Glenmont, Md., has its crime watch but also much more: As neighbors got out of their homes and started talking to one another, the sense of connection grew. They began to say hello at the nearby grocery store. They had a "visioning" session for their community and created a colorful Web site. At their first spring festival last month, 174 people showed up for face-painting and hot dogs.

"There's been an overwhelming increase in participation overall," said Kisha Wilson-Sogunro, neighborhood services manager for Manassas, Va.

Some sociologists and community organizers say they think there has been an uptick of "neighboring" in the recession, as residents are reaching out, in person and through e-mail discussion groups. They're talking crime and the economy, helping others through job losses and organizing money-saving potlucks.

Although the evidence is still largely anecdotal — U.S. Census and other data won't be available until later this year — some scholars say the numbers of those involved in community activities could increase for the first time in years, after a long downward spiral that began in the 1970s because of longer commutes and time pressure on two-income families.

Historically, economic hard times can be tough on civic engagement, as when involvement dropped during the Great Depression. But experts say that doesn't take into account new social technologies, a burst of political involvement among youths, and a president who has inspired many.

"Almost anyone in America can think in terms of 'this could happen to me.' It evokes a kind of empathy that is leading people to reassess what they value, what they care about and what they believe in," said John Bridgeland, national chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship, a federally chartered nonprofit group that takes the pulse of communities through an annual civic-health index. "In my view, we'll find a stronger inclination, a higher level of 'neighborliness' and civic engagement as a result of the economic downturn."

The group estimates 33 percent of the nation attended a community meeting in the past year and nearly 40 percent worked with others in their neighborhood to fix or improve something.

Keith Hampton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, runs a Web site for neighborhood groups with 50,000 members. Communication on i-Neighbors.org is up 25 percent this spring over last, with talk about topics including vacant homes and community gardens, he said.

Even in affluent ZIP codes, folks are getting creative: Wilson-Sogunro said one neighbor organized a tool-borrowing collective, another a summer jobs program for teen to spruce up the condo grounds.

"It's like we're a team," said Rob Burnett, 44, of Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles south of Washington. Residents in his subdivision have planted trees, donated items to a neighbor with five children who lost his job, and formed a study group on debt-free living.

"Before, everybody was showing off what they had. Now it's like, 'What can I cut back?' and 'How are you doing things differently?' Before, the guy who has the biggest Hummer on the street was the biggest guy in the world. That's gone."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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