Celebrating Nosy Neighbors

As America becomes a country plagued by community violence, mass shootings, school shootings and missing children, we must also become a country of nosy neighbors. Vigilance works. It's really up to us.
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My neighbor doesn't physically resemble Gladys Kravitz, the famed nosy neighbor in Bewitched! who reported on the goings-on of Samantha, the witch-turned-housewife. But she does act like Gladys, and I love her for it. I love having a nosy neighbor!

This does occasionally come with baggage. Like the time she shooed away the Direct TV installer because she was sure that I would not want to violate the dictates of our homeowners' association. She wasn't aware that I had asked permission. Or the time that she asked a friend who was waiting for me in the driveway if he had any business being there. He assured her that he was legitimately waiting for a meeting with me!

My neighbor is kind of like having a watchdog -- with brains. My wife and I feel safe and we do feel, eh... watched over.

We have valued nosy neighbors since we moved to our first apartment, a townhouse in Northampton, Mass. We were innocent newlyweds. Little did we know about being neighbors when a U-Haul pulled up to our neighbor's front door, unloaded many significant items from their house and took off. The young men and woman who robbed our neighbors in broad daylight socialized with us and other neighbors throughout their heist, leading us to assume that they were the neighbors' grown children, merely moving some stuff to their own place. Being nice neighbors, we even served them lemonade!

Since then, wherever we have lived, we have purposely and intrusively gotten to know our neighbors, their children, in-laws and other relatives in our own efforts to be vigilant. A few years ago, when a neighbor's garage door popped open while he was on vacation, I was there to close it. When I noticed a commotion across the street, I was there to lift a neighbor's elderly father just as he was collapsing from diabetic shock. By my way of thinking, that's just what good neighbors do.

So a little over one year ago, I was shocked to learn about the three kidnapped Cleveland women -- Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry -- who were holed up in an inner-city home for more than 10 years. All that time, the homeowner Ariel Castro socialized with the neighbors and attended neighborhood barbecues while maintaining a home where the windows were always covered and people couldn't enter through the front door. Some neighbors suspected that he was up to no good, but no one acted on their suspicions.

Finally, in May, 2013, nosy neighbor Charles Ramsey, while chomping down a Big Mac, noticed a woman trying to break her way out of the front door that was locked from the outside so inhabitants couldn't get out. He helped the woman -- Amanda Berry -- break the bottom front of the screen door to flee to safety. As recent books from both Ramsey and Knight -- and appearances on national television by the three victims -- attest, the rest is history. The women are safe, proceeding with their lives and telling their stories. All of this was made possible because a nosy neighbor, intruding on someone else's space, made their business his business.

Just one week ago, a woman in Santa Ana, Calif. described to police how she was drugged, kidnapped and held captive for 10 years by her mother's then-live-in boyfriend. She thankfully freed herself, but no doubt many neighbors stood by while this tragedy occurred.

I thought about the responsibility to be a nosy neighbor when I read that a bystander, watching suspicious activities outside a self-storage unit in Minnesota, recently foiled a potential killing spree at a local high school. There have been 44 school shootings since Newtown, resulting in 28 deaths. How many might have been prevented if more people -- both teens or adults -- who could have known about potential violent activities said something to officials?

When I was a child growing up in the '50s and '60s, every block, street, school and community had nosy neighbors. This was the rule rather than the exception. In my own case, my neighbor on the right, police officer Ernie Samas, nosed into my adolescent business while, on my left, Mr. Newman, a Chevy autoworker, admonished me for cutting up. I couldn't get into trouble without neighbors on both sides noticing.

Nowadays, in our inner-cities, neighbors are ignoring our missing children. In the suburbs, neighbors are keeping more to themselves, hanging out in secluded backyards rather than nosing into their neighbors' business. We operate more as silos than as neighbors living in neighborhoods.

As America becomes a country plagued by community violence, mass shootings, school shootings and missing children, we must also become a country of nosy neighbors. Vigilance works. It's really up to us.

My wife and I never apologized to the people whose apartment was robbed right under our neighborly noses in 1976, but we will pledge to follow in the great American example of Gladys Kravitz and be nosy neighbors.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us

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