I’m going back years now to a time when I owned a home in suburbia.  I recall this particular incident most vividly.  Returning from an intense tennis match I grabbed a beer, took off my shirt and sat myself down outside on the steps leading up to the front door.  I remained there some five to ten minutes, until I drained the bottle, then headed inside.  It was, I assumed completely normal and innocent.  It certainly should have passed from memory had I not learned shortly thereafter that a neighbor had taken offense to my sitting out there shirtless and drinking a beer.  “That’s what it was like living in Brooklyn,” she supposedly remarked.  “I didn’t”, she added, “move from that neighborhood only to see this sort of thing.”  I had had little to do with this neighbor.  Her reaction I considered amusing, hardly an affront.

I was reminded of that day recently when my daughter, while in the process of moving out of her suburban home, expressed concern.  She might, she said, be obliged to leave two garbage containers filled with recyclables along the curb for the entire weekend before Monday’s pick-up.  She worried that the neighbors (who she’d never again see) would not be pleased having the garbage outside for two days.  (In the end, she made other arrangements!)

I’ve long mused about the phenomenon of the overdeveloped suburban superego, the often not too subtle social pressure that regulates behavior among otherwise independent folks.  “What will the neighbors say?” might not always be expressed, but its influence is not easily ignored.

Much of this has to do with fitting in, learning neighborhood norms, conforming to outward appearances.  If your lawn gets burned out, or looks shabby and neglected, you’re sure it will offend those who’ve properly attended to their grass.  If your garbage cans are misshapen, smelly and shabby, or if paint is peeling off sections of your exterior walls, you can sense neighborhood disapproval.  If too many cars are parked in your driveway (especially if they are not late model vehicles) you can expect it has drawn the attention of people on the block.

There are other worrisome situations.  If a large tree on your property deposits most of its fall leaves next to the neighbor’s house, some sort of apology is probably due.  Likewise, if he’s already cleaned up his area and your leaves then blow on this lawn.  He might not say anything, but you sense he’s not pleased.

The local streets are public thoroughfares; homeowners consider the curbside area in front of their residences to be but an extension of their property.  Thus, parking your car there will surely be noticed and not welcomed.  Also observed will be the times your kids leave their bicycles on the property of neighbors when your dog strays and deposits there as well; late loud parties and sidewalks not shoveled in the wake of a large snowfall.  Words may not be exchanged directly, but somehow the message will get transmitted.  And so in time, unless you are downright ornery or totally oblivious, you will internalize “what the neighbors will say” assuring that suburbia will remain a place of tranquility and outward conformity.


  1. It’s just situations like these that the Long Island Dispute Resolution Center in Hempstead (operated by EAC, Inc) where neighbors for no charge can seek solutions that they come together upon with the aid of volunteer mediators.

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