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Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World

Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World
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How New England Can Save the World: Part II in a series
Part I: 2011 Biathalon World Cup: Aroostook County
Part III: Hardwick and the New Frontier of Food
Part IIII: A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires

When Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, moved from Washington, D.C., to the south end of Burlington, Vermont, in 1998, “we’d landed in what we thought was our dream neighborhood. It was walkable, near the lake, full of trees. But we were having trouble getting to know the neighbors.

One night, we were sitting around the dinner table talking about it. It hit us that in the Midwest and the South, where we were from, people brought cookies to their neighbors. We’d been here a year–where were our cookies?”

Hence plan one. They baked up a batch of Toll House specials and delivered them to the neighbors. “We used china plates, because I figured that way they’d have to return them and we’d get another conversation,” Wood-Lewis recalls. “We never did get them back. I was kind of dumbfounded. But I don’t think it was because people were rude. I think it’s because people are living in a different culture than they were 50 years ago.”

A culture busier and more distracted than ever–busy enough that even in Vermont, the state with the biggest rural population percentage in the Union, famous for its town meetings and its civic engagement, something had changed. So, in 2000, Wood-Lewis cooked up plan two, which may just turn out to be one of the most innovative (and deceptively obvious) uses of the Internet so far. In his hands, the Net has become a way to meet not people half a world away, but half a block.

“I invested $15 at the copy shop, printed up 400 fliers, and put one on every door in our neighborhood,” Wood-Lewis explains. “It pretty much just said, ‘Share messages about lost cats and block parties.'” Thus was born the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, which he ran as a volunteer effort for six years. “It took about five minutes a day, and I was already on the computer anyway,” he notes. Every evening he’d compile the five or six messages that had arrived at his inbox during the day and send them out in a single e-mail bulletin. That was it.

Someone would write in: “Neighbors, FYI: Late last night I observed a large possum ambling across my front yard. Not as bad as a skunk, but I understand that possums can damage gardens and dig up lawns.” Twenty-four hours later, another neighbor would respond: “They have very soft feet that aren’t good for digging and aren’t likely to cause lawn damage–and they’re very clean animals and spend much of their rest time grooming themselves.”

Meanwhile, someone else had pruned his apples trees and wanted to share the news that he had kindling piled up on the back porch free for the taking. Down the street someone’s car had been broken into: only thing taken was a gym bag filled with “my shoes, some sweaty clothes, and a couple of issues of The New Yorker. If anyone finds it dumped in their shrubbery, let me know.”

Forget the World Wide Web–this one stretched barely four blocks. And no video, no rating systems, no celebrities, no hyperlinks. Just the daily rhythm of neighborhood life. “It grew steadily, from 10 or 20 percent of the neighborhood to the point where by 2006 we had 90 percent of the neighborhood signed up,” says Wood-Lewis.

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Updated Monday, February 22nd, 2010

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9 Responses to Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World

  1. Roy Brown March 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    Love it! McKibben hits the nail on the head… this is one of those New England tools that should be in every community across the country. We just weathered a stormy Town Meeting Day this week, and neighbors talked with neighbors for weeks in advance about the issues in ADVANCE of Town Meeting, leading to better results… and Front Porch Forum played a large roll. I had lots of talks with local folks about the issues at the market, school, workplace, etc… and they usually started with “did you read what so and so said about X on Front Porch Forum?” And then we were off and running. Before FPF, I rarely spoke to these people. Good call Yankee… you’re improving with each issue lately.

  2. Trisha Craig March 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    This story is so simple, moving, and inspiring! What a great way to solve the bizarre problem of not knowing who your neighbors are. I love it!!

  3. William McAleer March 5, 2010 at 2:13 am #

    This was great!!! I’ve been living on 25 ann rd in long valley, nj since May 1992 and rarely see my neighbors even in spring or summer, never mind in the dead of winter! this article says 2nd in a series, I think I missed the first one, anyone know about it? thanks so much!!!

  4. Barbara Hall March 5, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks for your interest. Part I is “The Maine Way.” There’s a link at the beginning and end of this article, or you can copy this URL:

  5. Laura Lewandowski March 7, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Wonderful article. I just moved to a Vermont community with a FPF from a neighborhood in the western US that was purposefully platted to discourage interaction with one’s neighbors. That was a cold existence, let me tell you. After just one week I know more about my new area than I did after six years in the other neighborhood, and can’t wait to get started in the life of the greater community. It is pretty wonderful.

  6. Remy Steel March 7, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    Great article. Mr. Wood-Lewis should indeed receive as many awards as available for his effort in this very difficult mission to connect neighbors. Neighborhoods are indeed on a decline across the country. We have been feeling it and recent research confirms it. With the same passion and sense of urgency to connect neighbors, I started something similar in the East but that makes it really easy, fast and free to bring any neighborhood online. is a social platform dedicated to connecting neighbors and building community. You get the same benefits and more at no cost, no setup time, with less resources and overhead to maintain. We have members in over 200 cities in the US and span across 3 continents. Check it out. It’s all free which enables faster adaptation. We actually pay community builders and organizers who bring their community online and charge nothing for customization. Thus far it has been a labor of love as well. I think distributing the love and resources on a common and tightly integrated platform would have the greatest impact in this movement to reconnect neighbors. By harnessing technology the limits of community size or administrative borders can be removed and neighbors can truly be connected to the neighbors near them or in their own backyard.

  7. Michael Wood-Lewis March 8, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    Thanks to Bill McKibben and Yankee Magazine for shining a spotlight on all the wonderful community building underway by Vermonters through Front Porch Forum. Thanks too to the commenters above and the folks Bill quoted in the article. We look forward to expanding to other communities. If interested, go to and let us know!

  8. Michael Wood-Lewis March 8, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    P.S. And we greatly appreciate the two dozen VT state legislators who are co-sponsoring a resolution honoring Front Porch Forum this month…

  9. Steven Clift March 8, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Excellent story. What the Front Porch Forum has done extremely well is create a network of small scale semi-private spaces among neighbors. Over here in Minnesota (mostly, but also England some) we’ve been working our way down from city-wide online civic forums to the larger, but still public neighborhood level (a few thousand households in my case where I have about 450 of 4,000 households on a forum … we just had a potluck last night). According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, some 4% of American adults say they are on a neighborhood e-mail list. With FPF and sites like in Boston and my we are the most visible because we serve multiple communities. So whether you work to bring FPF to your community or doing your own thing, it is time to bring this idea to the other 96% of people!! I am trying to connect anyone interested in building local communities online here:

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