Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World
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.
That’s when Cottage Living magazine included the area in its list of the 10 best neighborhoods in the country: “And the reporter called me and he said that everywhere else in the country people would have dozens of different reasons why their place worked. But here, almost everyone put the e-mail thing on the list. That’s what gave me the confidence.”
The confidence to quit his job and start offering the service across all of Chittenden County, Vermont’s most populous. Within two years, Front Porch Forum (FrontPorchForum.com) was reaching 15,000 households and participating in more than 100 neighborhood nets; last fall it expanded into Grand Isle County.
Some nets are in inner-city neighborhoods, where the main topics are how to fight graffiti and drive away drug dealers; some are in rural towns where the messages include: “We have four Indian Runner drakes whom we expected to be females and lay beautiful round eggs. Instead we have these guys who really need some girls!”
This sounds like the stuff you’d see in the letters-to-the-editor column, or on the bulletin board at the supermarket–and it is. But now it comes in an easy-to-use daily update that somehow breaks down barriers. “My sense was that this skill of neighborliness had eroded,” says Wood-Lewis, citing data such as Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. “If you could increase social capital in a neighborhood–that is, your network of whom you know and how well you know them–then your involvement increases. If you’re among strangers, you’re not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts.”