Some new friends invited us to their boat docked in Lake Union, here in Seattle. This is the first year they’ve been at this dock and they are trying to get to know the other boat owners.  Although they’ve owned their boat for 5 years, they were docked at two other marinas with beautiful boats and tighter security but they were “dead”.  They were looking for more social interaction.   People they could recognize and say hello to.

I have never been a boater and did not grow up in a boating family, so I don’t know what it’s all about.  But it was obvious from the time I set foot on the dock  that part of the fun of boating is just to enjoy it while it is docked…which  means enjoying the  folks hanging out on the neighboring boats.

I know this is true for camps back east.  I know people that leave their homes on an acre or more, to go to their ‘camp’…a camper/trailer that is parked in a campground all year long.  The camper may be all of 12 feet wide and their whole campsite may be 30 feet wide.  They spend their summer weekends and more  hanging out in this small space just to be social with the other campers.  They sit outside and chat with everyone that walks by.  They drive their golf cart or ATV around the campground and say hello to everyone they meet.  They spend the day cooking, eating, tinkering around and being social.  They spontaneously  invite passersby to join them at their picnic table or around their fire  for drinks or dessert.  They go to a friend’s camper for dinner or morning coffee.  They take walks.

The same seemed to be true for the boaters.  They walked the dock and chatted with other boaters.  They wave or shout to everyone that walks or boats by.  They invited people for appetizers or spontaneously accepted an offer of margaritas from Keith, the guy who has a perfectly good house three blocks up the hill from the dock in a very desirable neighborhood…but he chooses to live on his houseboat that’s decked out in party lights and palm trees.

I find myself longing for the same thing this summer.  To take off and set up tent camp at a campground somewhere and narrow life down to making meals, tinkering around, watching the boys play, chatting with others and hopefully sharing a spontaneous margarita or a meal with a fellow camper.

I find it interesting that when we want to get away, take a break from our schedules and responsibilities, many of us move toward opportunities to be social with other people…even strangers!

At the same time, how many of us incorporate opportunities for social interaction into our everyday homes and lots?  We put up 6 foot fences around our yards.  We choose the homes with the bigger lot, further from neighbors, set back from the sidewalk and street.  We orient our lives toward the back yard and ignore the front yard and front porch (if we have one).  We choose neighborhoods with no destinations within them…no reasons for people to walk along the sidewalks.  All in the name of ‘privacy’.

We do design into our homes wonderful spaces for socializing like big social kitchens or back decks and patios for planned BBQs or parties.  But these interactions take some effort to instigate.  We have to coordinate schedules and invite people, grocery shop, cook, etc.

We don’t spend much thought or effort designing for spontaneous social interaction with neighbors walking by.  These are the freebies.  No planning involved.  A chat at the sidewalk or the fence.  A beer on the front porch.  These seem to be the same kind of social interactions we seek out at boat docks and campgrounds.

And I have to wonder….are we lonely at home?


I need some old people. My 5 ½ year old talks so much, has so much to say, that we have long ago reached the limit of what we can listen to on a daily basis.  But he keeps going.   He is smart, insightful, creative, comedic, and if my definition is correct, an extrovert.  Or maybe it is just part of being 5 ½.  He seems to process most of his thoughts out loud.  He loves to challenge me with his ‘tricky’ word puzzles and he wants math problems.  He likes to play twenty questions.  Constantly.  All day.  Every day.  Non-stop.  See where I’m going with this?  Car rides can be mentally exhausting.  I take naps now.

When I was a kid, we had lots of older neighbors.  The Steinacker’s lived right next door.  Willie and Katie never had children so they became like grandparents to me.  According to my mom, I would go over there almost every day…either knock on the door or press my nose up against the back screen door to see into the kitchen or join Katie while she was gardening in the back yard, hanging up laundry to dry or sitting on the back step dipping her arthritic hands into a coffee can full of hot paraffin wax.  We talked.  We hung out, really. 

On the other side of our house was Lizzy.  She lived alone. But I would go over to her house and knock on the door.  She always had a full candy dish on her dining room table.  That may have been my excuse for going over to hang out with her.  Otherwise, we would sit at the kitchen table and talk, while she drank her coffee.  I remember she would fill a tea cup full of coffee, then put cream in it so that it overflowed onto the saucer.  She would stir it so that more would spill on the saucer.  Then she would remove the cup and drink from the saucer, since the temperature of the coffee in the saucer was cooler.  I loved watching her do that.  I would hang out with her while she worked her flower garden.  She grew huge orange and black poppies and enormous peonies.  I can’t remember what we would talk about.  Just chatting I guess.  I didn’t have the kind of childhood where I experienced any trauma and needed someone to talk to about being sad.  I guess I just liked to hang out with people.  And these people were right next door, they were home and they didn’t send me away.

On the other side of Lizzy’s house lived the other Steinacker’s.  Geraldine and Les were brother and sister and I spent a lot of time with them as well.  Geraldine always greeted me in German.  “Guten Tag!”  I had my very own special little drawer in one of the pieces of furniture in their dining room.  Geraldine would put stickers or anything interesting she received in her junk mail in “my drawer”.  So I would knock on their door and when I went in, my first stop would be my drawer.  And then we would just chat.  I liked to rock in the rocking chair in their living room.  Or eat Saltines and Fresca  with Geraldine while her other brother Norm sat at the kitchen table on Sundays doing the crossword puzzle. 

So, it seems a big part of my daily life as a child consisted of dropping in on my elderly neighbors and hanging out with them.  And since reconnecting with childhood friends via Facebook over the last year, it seems they, too, spent their childhoods doing the same thing.  We have been sharing stories about what a huge impact our older neighbors have had on who we are today. 

And I can’t help but think…this is what my 5 ½ year old needs.  I could see him confidently walking door to door, visiting, chatting, wondering aloud about infinity and war and growing watermelon and how hot the sun is and  playing twenty questions. 

This idea of kids needing or being enriched by the attention of seniors in their neighborhood connects to bigger issues in urban planning, housing and community building.  But for now, I will keep it at the simplest level.  I need some old people.

So, how would I do this?  It’s not like signing him up for camp or gymnastics class…I guess I have to go knock on my 90-year old neighbor’s door and schedule a “play date”.

But maybe not in the way you were thinking…

He walked to work.  When he entered the house, he changed his shoes and put on a cardigan…a ritual to symbolize he was about to begin something special. 

He connected learning and growing to being a part of a community.

He visited friends in the neighborhood to learn new things and meet new people.  Friends stopped by to drop off interesting things that he asked to borrow or they thought he would like. 

He frequented the local bakery, music shop and other neighborhood businesses and turned those visits into learning opportunities.  Those business owners often hosted special events in their stores to feature other local artists.

His “educational” visits weren’t so kid-centric that they involved the over the top silliness that we seem to think kids require these days like dancing characters or goofy high energy songs.  Mr. Rogers introduced jazz and cake decorating and ballet and violins…all through the people in his neighborhood. 

He asked questions.  He modeled how to ask people about themselves and their work.  A page right out of Dale Carnegie and still the best way to engage others and learn. 

He held the role of neighbor up as something special.  It meant kindness, respect, sharing resources.  Granted, some of his “neighbors” were a little unsual.  Hyperactive Mr. McFeely comes to mind.  Just like in the real world, our neighborhoods have their “characters”. Even characters play an important role in a neighborhood, helping to ad to its identity and flavor.

Mr. Rogers sat on the front porch or front steps and waved to passers by.  He played games on the sidewalk.  People walked by with their dogs or rode by on bikes.

Maybe that’s why many in my generation are drawn more and more to walkable urban neighborhoods with coffee shops and other shops. While we were watching TV in the 70’s, the grownups were building suburban neighborhoods that were more conducive to driving a car to the store or playing with other kids just like us in our own cul de sac.  Not too many characters here. 

But we have a longing to be somebody’s neighbor… to wander into Joe Negri’s music store and hear an impromptu jazz session…to be recognized by the store clerks and to be waved to on the street…to be taken care of at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.  We have that familiarity of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood buried somewhere in our childhood brain cells and it feels right. 

Mr. Roger’s fictional neighborhood held a richness of daily life that some of us get to experience today and some of us don’t.  As a whole, we have become more and more fearful of people we don’t know which make it more difficult for us to participate in a “neighborhood”.  That fear creates isolation.

Mr. Rogers’ modeled interacting with people.  We can model the same for our children. 

When children are known to others, it feels good.  They walk a little taller.  The world is a little friendlier.  People notice when you’ve lost a tooth or that you got a new bike.  There are friendly faces when you have a school fundraiser and have to test your salesmanship skills or just get up enough courage to get words out of your mouth. 

The impact of our “neighborhood” or lack thereof  goes so deeply into how we feel and how our children feel about themselves.  And it really comes down to the physical forms that we as planners and developers have created. 

So, I don’t know if Mr. Rogers really thought about all of this when he was creating his show and its fictional setting.  But I suspect he did.  He had the gift of distilling things down to their basic elements…in the way he spoke to children about feelings and the songs he wrote…in his intentionality of his daily rituals…in the way he asked others questions.  I think he completely understood the immense learning opportunities presented by a diverse and walkable neighborhood.  And he was decades ahead of planners in the 70’s who were busy designing something much different. 


They are different.  They stand out a little or a lot.  They may be “eccentric”.  Or they may have some mental challenges that cause them to always be way outside the “normal” box. 

When I was a kid, we had Mr. Bender who always wore a bowler hat and was seen regularly being dragged down the street in our town by his huge german shephard.  He always tipped his hat at ladies and mumbled some jibberish that could only be interpreted as suggestive.  You could also catch glimpses of him in other towns, without his dog, attempting to get a ride back home by shuffle dancing around, bowing, waving and tipping his hat while hitchhiking.  I suppose someone from our neighborhood would drive him there and drop him off.  I think he was mostly alone.  I don’t remember seeing him much with other people…other than when he got a ride.  We had a few other characters, but most were not as colorful as Mr. Bender.  It was a small town. 

Living in an urban neighborhood as an adult, we have plenty of characters.  “Running lady” who always wears braided pigtails, bright red lipstick and runs to the bus stop as well as home from the bus stop…not because she’s late for something.  It’s just what her body or mind tells her to do.  “Yelling guy” who rides a bike in cowboy boots and yells at imaginary people.  The old guy in the dark grey suit and fuzzy grey white hair and beard that shuffles around mumbling.  These are the characters that really stand out. 

But there are others that you may not think of as characters.  The guy with the tattooed head who could always be spotted pushing a double stroller.  The cyclist that rides to and from work each day pulling his dog behind him in a laundry basket on a trailer.  The neighbor that is always organizing stuff, attending neighborhood meetings or passing out fliers.  The super friendly clerk at the game store or the owner of the BBQ joint with the distinctive voice that stands in the doorway and talks to everyone. 

These people are filling an important role in a community.  They add to its identity.  They create common experiences and knowledge that can shared by members of the community.  “You know the yelling guy?”  “Yes!  He rides by our house all the time!” 

They enrich our daily experience while we are moving through our day and along our familiar paths to work, to school, to the store.  Our communities are not only the buildings, streets, and parks that create the spaces we occupy but the people that create the energy and the color of our experience.    Without them, our experience might not be as colorful.

I have to say, they all make me smile.  Some make me sad.  On any given day I can be reminded of the fragility of the human brain.  I can appreciate their creativity and ingenuity.  I can be fed by their friendliness.  I can admire their authenticity.  I appreciate that range of emotions they spur in me.

I had a sister with Down’s Syndrome that died when she was only three.  But I think of her.  And I think that had she lived to be a somewhat independent adult, I would have wanted her to live in a community where she could walk to stores to get what she needed and ride the bus.  But most importantly, I would have wanted her to live somewhere where people would know her, recognize her and say hello to her.  She may have been a neighborhood character, because she would have been noticeably different and I imagine she would probably have been very social and said hello to everyone. 

I appreciate that my children get to experience this with me.  They have grown up knowing that there are SO many different kinds of people…no one is weird just because they do things differently.  It’s ok to be just who you are.  I am so thankful for that gift. 

One of the underlying reasons a community has or does not have characters is housing.  If a community has all different kinds of housing options… large, small, affordable, not so affordable, condos, single family, apartments, group options, rooms for rent, or ‘mother in law’ apartments …a wider variety  of people can live there.  A mix of uses is another key.  Shops, restaurants, library, post office, bus stops, grocery stores, services within walking distance can support a wider variety of people…with and without cars.  A walkable, mixed use neighborhood is not just a trendy idea for coffee shops and sidewalk cafes.   This gets people out into the world.  Young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled… Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience each other. 

And we wouldn’t experience our neighborhood characters.  They would be in cars.  Or somewhere else.

I would love to hear about the characters in your community!