Most Americans experience the frustration of an uncleared sidewalk during the winter: trudging through knee-deep snow, wet and cold, we always wonder which neighbor didn’t do their duty—who didn’t clear their patch of sidewalk? According to CityLab reporter Lydia Lee, three winters ago one community in Ann Arbor, Michigan fixed this problem—by pooling their money, buying a tractor named “SnowBuddy,” and organizing a volunteer force to man the snowplow:
It took only a couple of weeks to raise the $18,000 in startup funds that the board of the SnowBuddy (now registered as a formal nonprofit) had set as their first goal. … This winter, the SnowBuddy tractor has already made its 8-hour circuit around the neighborhood’s sidewalks about 10 times. In addition to 12 volunteer tractor drivers, others have signed up for the “windrow patrol”: They shovel away the piles of ice and snow pushed up by road snowplows that block the ends of sidewalks at intersections.
This story brought me back to a time when a snow storm bellowed through D.C. and Northern Virginia, leaving driveways and sidewalks caked with snow. My husband was gone, and I was about to leave on a 9-hour road trip.
But when I walked out to my car, I found it buried in thick snow on every side. Young apartment-living individual that I was, I had no snow shovel. So I began kicking and clawing and wrestling with the snow. As you can imagine, this method wasn’t very useful. Just as I was getting very tired and wet, a stranger came over, and shoveled my car to freedom. He beckoned for me to get in the car, start it, and make sure I could pull out. Just as I pulled out onto the road—free at last—with a smile and a wave, the stranger was gone. I didn’t even have time to get out and say thank you.
This stranger had mastered the art of neighborliness: the art of anonymous friendship, offered without expectation of return. And that kind, mysterious individual has remained with me ever since—a reminder of the anonymous affection that we so often can offer, but choose not to. We usually have a plethora of excuses: lack of time or resources, a frantic schedule and needy kids, thousands of weighty concerns already burdening our minds.
There is something else, too, that often prevents us from reaching out: fear. It’s a simple yet potent ingredient that can poison all our interactions. It’s the sort of thing that infects many American towns. It prevents parents from letting their kids accept homemade treats (or even wrapped candy) on Halloween. It’s the sort of thing that results in us calling the cops, rather than reaching out and helping our neighbor. As a country, we are slowly un-learning the art of neighborliness.
But stories like Lee’s are a welcome reminder that, in truth, community rapport and neighborliness are still alive—in different places, and in different ways. Preventing the decline of neighborliness is not only possible: it is already happening in many neighborhoods, as people realize what they’ve lost.
We are a society obsessed with work, a society in which most gathering and fellowship now happens outside the home, at restaurants or bars or coffee shops. We’ve moved the crux of hospitality and fellowship away from the home and neighborhood, thus creating an empty vacuum in our local affections. We’ve spread our commutes further and further from our locales, making it increasingly difficult to spend time at home. Our churches are often a half hour, or an hour, away from our homes. We’ve structured lives in which the home and neighborhood are always secondary.
This often leads to a second dilemma: our society has become frightened and wary of the stranger, always assuming the worst. And while this is indeed necessary at times—especially, say, for a young woman traveling alone, or a child at the park—such fear also prevents us from offering, or from accepting, the friendship of a stranger. We become accustomed to viewing everyone around us with a wary eye, from metro riders to the local coffee barista. This wariness and fear is a major impediment to neighborliness: how can we love the people around us if we’re constantly expecting them to knock on our front door with an ax in tow? Perhaps we watch too many horror movies; perhaps we have let rational fear morph into irrational terror. But regardless, such hostilities are absolutely antithetical to hospitality.
The local community often is not the fearsome place we think it is—or at least, if we started investing in it, it could be that even the darkest of neighborhoods would begin to change. But such investment requires a subjugation of our desires and schedule to serve our neighbors. As the aforementioned story points out, the work of neighborliness is often thankless or unpaid work. It may often be offered to someone you may never see again. Thus, it requires a purposeful sacrifice of the self, as well as a trust that the resources, time, and love offered will not return void—but that, rather, it is indeed “more blessed to give than to receive.”
Interestingly, the SnowBuddy organizer, Paul Tinkerhess (whose neighbors now call him the "snow boss"), thinks that the job of clearing sidewalks should eventually be handed back to the city:
While gratified by the community response, Tinkerhess would ultimately like to see the city take on the job of clearing sidewalks. “We want to make an example of what a neighborhood looks like through the winter if its walks are all kept clear,” he says. “But equally important, we want to encourage our city officials to consider taking this task from us, since they are the rightful administrators of the transportation corridors.”
But what Tinkerhess and the SnowBuddy are encouraging in their endeavor is something that a city-organized clearing system could never replace: a network of community, a vibrant “little platoon,” characterized by a true understanding of what it means to be neighborly.
This piece was originally posted by The American Conservative, and it is re-published here with permission.