Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World
“It’s not that people care less about community,” she notes. “It’s that the economy has shifted how much people have to work to keep up their standard of living. You don’t have one of the two partners home during the day making all those social connections, providing some sense of safety to the neighborhood. People have less disposable time than they used to.”
In a world like that, a system that lets you sit down for 10 minutes at the end of the day and learn what’s happened to your neighbors should, in Comerford’s view, earn Wood-Lewis one of those MacArthur “genius” grants. Wood-Lewis would probably welcome the recognition of his idea, and the check would come in handy, too. The forums aren’t breaking even yet: Subscriptions are free, and revenue comes from a few unobtrusive ads at the bottom of each e-mail. Also, city government pays a fee for the right to post public notices on the system. “With a few hundred thousand dollars of development money, we could put this software in a box and set it up anywhere,” Wood-Lewis predicts.
Which would mean one more good New England idea spreading out across the country: people everywhere able to, say, ask their neighbors if they had some topsoil, or maybe a cake pan. (“I’ve decided to move beyond my comfort zone and make a torte for a Passover seder to which I’ve been invited. For this I’d need a 9-inch springform pan. Yes, I could buy one. But I’d rather borrow one for this first and probably only attempt.”)
It would mean that more people could borrow a compost tumbler, or find out about a new study at the university on the effect of caffeine on snoring, or see whether anyone wanted to go halves on a grass-fed steer from a local farmer. It would mean that everyone could see the wish list for donations for newly arrived African immigrants who’ll be planting gardens come spring (wheelbarrows, rakes, hoes, scales), or find out about the neighborhood plant swap (“We just want all our perennials to go to good homes”) or which porch to visit if they want to rummage through big bags of “dress-up and costume clothes.” “Seeking moped repairs,” “Ethiopian food available,” fourth graders selling honey-glazed donuts to fund their trip to the science museum (made with local wheat!).
It would mean we could all be the good neighbors we’d like to be. “There was a mother near us, with a teenage daughter who was having a birthday,” Wood-Lewis recalls. “The girl wanted to go canoeing with her friends for her birthday, but when her mother checked out the price of renting canoes, it was too high. Her daughter said, ‘I see lots of canoes in backyards around here,’ but her mother said, ‘You can’t just ask people you don’t know for their boats.’
“Still, she put a one-line notice on the forum, saying they needed six canoes. Before the day was out, people were coming by. I mean, there were canoes just piling up in their front yard. She wrote me a note afterwards: ‘What a great feeling. What a great reminder of how to be a community. Why didn’t I get to know these people 10 years ago?’”
READ PART I: The Maine Way