Gone, mostly, are the days of asking your neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar. When I was growing up, my mother viewed our neighbors with irritation — their principal crimes were overdoing their Christmas decorations, and on one occasion, drunk-driving through our fence. I can count on one hand the pleasant neighborly interactions I’ve had as an adult. Once, in my upscale urban neighborhood in Atlanta, my fiancé asked another neighbor for an egg — he eyed us with suspicion, as if blueberry muffins were a pretext for some sort of political scam or a multi-level marketing scheme. Now, irritation generally characterizes my relationship with my neighbors. Why would you wear heels when you have hardwood floors and a downstairs neighbor? Who still listens to the Barenaked Ladies, much less on repeat? But I also have intense curiosity, and in the absence of peeking through my neighbors’ windows as I walk by, which is hard to do in a high-rise, I have Nextdoor.
Nextdoor, for the sane and detached among you, is a social media platform that’s locality-driven, an alternative to meetings you actually have to show up for, neighborhood Facebook groups that might give away a little too much information about you, or listservs that clog your inbox. When you sign up, you give your address, which the company verifies by credit card billing address, phone billing address, or postcard. You have access only to your neighborhood and a few surrounding hoods. It’s a place to post about a lost dog or found kittens, advertise an estate sale, or ask for recommendations for a handyman from fellow residents.
My neighborhood’s Nextdoor includes a space for officials to communicate with residents, like the Atlanta Police Department and the Department of Watershed Management. The categories for posts from residents include classifieds, crime and safety, documents (almost never used), free items, general, lost and found, pet directory, recommendations, events calendar, real estate. More than 150,000 neighborhoods in the U.S., U.K., and Netherlands are on Nextdoor, according to Fortune. It was valued at about $1 billion in 2015.
“Community building” is usually more of a buzzword or phrase on social media, but in this case, it’s quite literal. The idea is that Nextdoor promotes community engagement with the people in your actual, geographic community, and that it would build social capital and better citizens. Instead, it’s been heavily criticized for contributing to fear, distrust, and racist behavior. There are also coyote sightings, warnings about the Starbucks Unicorn drink, and requests to borrow someone’s kombucha scoby.
The Crime category is where the ugliness of Nextdoor is most obvious. The coded language of “hip-hop types” and “thugs” (translation: black or brown), “suspicious” people and the homeless. In 2016, due largely to the efforts of advocacy groups in Oakland, California, the company changed how crimes and suspicious activity are reported in an attempt to crack down on racist language and incidents, forcing residents to describe a person’s clothing, for example, rather than just being able to say “a black man.”
It didn’t used to be like this, neighbors say; “this” being break-ins and rude language and panhandling and litter. Back in my day, we left our doors unlocked, they say. But they also say, be smart. See something, say something. You have second amendment rights. Take no chances.
“I wish we had a death penalty for stealing,” wrote my young, white, female neighbor. “Go to the range and hone in on your shooting ability and drop someone that shows total lack of regard for your personal property,” said a young white man, who explained that “castle doctrine” would protect you from prosecution if you killed someone for breaking your car windows. (No, it wouldn’t, commented a lawyer.)
My former neighbor Heather* exemplifies the worst of Nextdoor. She saw a Dodge Charger with tinted windows and rims parked on her street and posted several times over the course of a few days, with photos and video. “Suspicious Dodge Charger is here around again!!!” “I am getting angry because I don’t see a patrol neighbor drive around to check all of neighbors for their safety plus cop NEED to go his place to take him to jail for stalker often. (I gave him a tag number) there is nothing cop can do bc this suspicious didn’t break a law!”
Someone’s brother ran the plates. Other neighbors posted surveillance photos. Then, Daniel*, another neighbor, chimed in about “this suspicious.” Daniel, whose nanny has never been late, not once in 2 years. In fact, she arrives early every day, so she parks around the corner from the house before her shift.
She didn’t pull into the driveway to get away from you, she pulled into the driveway to bring our kids home. She drives by your house frequently, well, because you are my neighbor. If you want to know, she has a clean driving and criminal record, and the respect of a lot people in our neighborhood. I trust her with the safety of my family and we love her like a member of our family. It breaks my heart to see her arrive in tears, which was the case this morning. I understand why you might approach someone outside your house if you do not recognize the car. Three separate people approached her this morning, each interaction was a bit different, but thematically there was clear message sent “that she didn’t belong”. How can I say that you might ask? Well, one person told her explicitly that she need to go even after she tried to explain who she is, and another approach her with a gun holstered on his hip. You can’t tell me, that as a woman sitting in a car alone you wouldn’t find that scary. Hell, I know I would be scared in that situation.
Not that there isn’t crime, though — there are carjackings, the burglaries, the stolen tires and cold cases. Police departments post about criminals they’ve caught. Neighbors warn each other about rashes of car break-ins.
But it’s the cases of paranoia that are the most fascinating. There’s the mother who saw a car slow down and decided it must be a child sex trafficker out to get her toddler (and the neighbors who backed her up, as a mother’s instinct is never, ever wrong, even when it is). There’s the woman whose neighbor smokes weed, and the commenter who informed her that they probably run a “drug lab.” The man who asked how we should prepare to combat the “Ferguson effect,” or the supposed phenomenon that police officers are now afraid to use force because of the riots over Michael Brown’s death.
Many neighbors have Ring or other home security systems and frequently post videos and photos of criminals (a burglar in the act, for example) and “suspicious people.” The latter is sometimes just people — canvassing for political candidates, making deliveries, trying to find a friend’s house.
There are self-righteous homeowners who ask, “Who’s with me?” to shutting down the strip clubs and sex toy shops that preceded them by decades and will probably outlast them. There was a couple that moved next door to a nightclub and then complained about the noise. And then there are the ones who disdain the “tranny hookers” outside their apartment — people who have lived there for far longer.
“Go live in the suburbs,” sneer the others at the complainers. Occasionally, it flips, and someone argues that the homeless man with the violent criminal record is fine just where he is, living in a woman’s backyard and yelling at her and her dog in the mornings. And sometimes, there is deliberate provocation.
My experiences have never been quite a provocative as those of Josh Fruhlinger, a Bunker Hill-adjacent Echo Park, Los Angeles resident who recently tweeted about neighbors using their Nextdoor for “free adult movies” and dick pics.
It’s not all dicks. There are lots of coyote sightings, too. From sea to shining sea, coyotes stroll America the beautiful, according to the “General” category. Beauty has its place alongside the ugliness. Calls to help a homeless neighbor or celebrate a life, announcements of the first songbird of the season and invitations for new neighbors to get to know each other.
Most of the charm and humor, in fact, is found in the “General” category, along with the animal sightings and concerns of every species, from roof rats to hedgehogs and broken bird wings to snake eggs. Frequently, there is lively debate. “The great horned owl call is one long hoot followed by two short hoots.” “You are mistaken. It is hoooooooooot hoot hoot hoot.”
Recently, an Atlanta neighbor discovered a copperhead right before she stepped on it in her flip flops. She snapped its photo and realized it was swallowing a bird. Her post was followed by 82 replies. No, it is a pygmy rattlesnake. No, it is a harmless brown water snake. No, it is definitely “a C-head.” Beware should you get bitten — there is no antivenom anymore because once someone sued for an allergic reaction. Speaking of allergic reactions, is antivenom still made from horse serum? The original poster should get a cat; they were prized in ancient Egypt for their snake hunting abilities.
“Classifieds” is where the one-sentence stories live. A moving sale with a bolo tie and a painting of two tigers. Hamsters. Cooler doors. Eggs ($5 a dozen). Tickets to Shaky Beats, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, The Weeknd, Soundgarden, Atlanta United, Hawks, Braves. Patio heater “and chimnea.”
My neighbors mostly live up to the stereotypes about Buckhead, where I live now. It’s where old money, new money, and no money mix. There’s a Ferrari in my parking lot and a Dior store within walking distance; the executives’ power breakfast spot and a country club aren’t far. But many of the people who work here (at the two upscale malls in a quarter-mile, for example) can’t afford to live here; they’re the ones taking advantage of our notoriously lacking public transportation system. But my neighbors are worried about crime levels they think are sky high. They’re outraged the 4th of July fireworks were cancelled. They’re shocked they got a ticket for passing a school bus.
I still don’t know my neighbors in my new building, but the elevators have been broken, which means we all spend a lot of time waiting around. It’s become a big building soap opera, complete with lawsuits. But being forced to spend time together has forced neighborliness. A man I know only from his vociferous Trump support on Facebook told me worriedly about his elderly mother and how the elevator petitions he printed out about our management company were for her — what if something happened and EMTs couldn’t get to her in time? Our concierge told me she’s thinking about leaving to go work at a brewery, and I got unsolicited advice on “working with what I’ve got” from two women who had just taken shots in the hallway.
After all this tech aimed at making us get to know each other, it’s a damn broken elevator that’s brought me my neighbors.
Katie Lambert is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist.