We used to have this one family on our apartment block, who, in all kinds of weather, you would find playing out front: mom, dad, and their two daughters. Not out back of our building, where there are trees and grass and picnic tables, but out front, where there is an ugly parking lot and a shriveled, sad attempt at a garden. Why were they out there? What was with that?
Still, their wacky obsession with the front of our building came in handy from time to time. They would often help carry groceries, shovel snow, catch a runaway toddler, and help move new people in. When I got talking to some of my neighbors about this family, there was not a single person who hadn't been helped out by them in at least one way. And now that they are gone, the feeling is unanimous: we all really miss seeing them out there.
I realized after all this time that they actually had a larger purpose in being out front, besides giving their kids some exercise. They were actively building a community for our apartment block — with simple tools like a "Hi there!" and a "Can I give you a hand with that?" These were followed up with an "I'm Randall," a warm smile and a good, strong handshake. This family knew everyone in our building, and we all knew them. We knew where they were if we needed either help, or just a friendly conversation while we watched our kids play happily together.
You see, playing out front is different than playing out back, because the front of your home — whether it be an apartment block or a simple stand-alone house — is open to the world, whereas the back of your home is private. Getting yourself and your kids out there, and hanging around for a significant chunk of time, is putting yourself out in the public sphere, where your neighbors can engage with you and you can engage with them. And, as neighbor interacts with neighbor, and as we get to know each other, we can build a community for ourselves, which we are all a part of — where we all truly belong.
So, this spring and summer, how about it? Forget the backyard - play out front with your kids. Be the next family that everyone knows, or who helps new families move in. All it takes is your presence, followed by a wave, a smile, and a hello. If that's where people want to leave it, then that's okay. But, if after a few times of seeing you out there (and it may take a few times), they want to come hang out, have a chat, then that's great! Imagine what we could build this year, if all of us took a little extra time out front, and if we put ourselves "out there" literally. A community that we can belong to? That sounds wonderful to me.
(Image: Flickr user Richard Gifford licensed for use under Creative Commons)