When we moved into a new neighborhood several years ago, we met Terry. He lived across the street from us and was the heart and hub of the small loop of homes that made up our neighborhood. None of us really knew each other, but we all knew Terry. He was a one-man Neighborhood Watch. He kept us updated on everyone’s comings and goings, but never in a way that felt like gossip.

Terry was generous with what he had, always ready to help and never asked for anything in return. If you needed a tool, Terry was your guy. Help with a project? Terry had advice — and usually time to come work on it with you.

After giving birth to my son, I didn’t weed my front yard for a month and received a citation from our homeowners’ association. Then one day, I came home and found Terry had done the weeding for me.

Even when the time came for us to move, he was with us every day — disassembling bookshelves, lending us his dolly and lifting the heaviest boxes into our storage pods.

Terry is old enough to be my father. On political matters, we disagree about almost everything. Religiously, we don’t see eye to eye. But when I look back on the years I spent in that neighborhood, I treasure my friendship with Terry, and hold it in my heart as an example of the power of neighborliness to heal America’s personal, social and political divides.

I’ll be be thinking about him on Wednesday, which is National Good Neighbor Day, established by then-President Jimmy Carter in 1978. In his proclamation, Carter noted that “understanding, love and respect build cohesive families and communities. The same bonds cement our nation and the nations of the world. For most of us, this sense of community is nurtured and expressed in our neighborhoods.”

That last bit may have been true then, but is decidedly less so now. Our neighborhoods, like almost every other social space we inhabit, have become places where Americans increasingly experience social isolation, distrust of one another and contentious interactions across lines of difference.

This is why celebrating National Good Neighbor Day today is more important than ever. 

Being a better neighbor starts with making a connection. If you are among the majority of Americans who know only some of their neighbors, go out and introduce yourself to all of them. And once you know your neighbors’ names, don’t stop there. Invite them over for dinner, to your kids’ sporting events, or to join you on a walk around the block. Creating bonds of affection and mutual trust takes time and intentional interactions. Introducing yourself and inviting your neighbors to a social gathering today might just ensure that when conflict arises tomorrow it can be resolved with courtesy and mutual respect. 

If you already know your neighbors — or even if you don’t — start practicing a good neighbor mindset by seeing yourself as a resource to those around you. Offer up your phone number so that people have someone to call in case of emergency. Share the surplus from your garden, offer to water someone’s plants while they’re away, pass along toys your kids have outgrown, or make your tools available for others to borrow. One of the greatest dividends of a healthy community is generalized reciprocity — trusting that if I help you now, you’ll help me later. In an era of increasing environmental and economic uncertainty, investing in mutual aid on the micro-level is critical.

And, if you live in one of the millions of neighborhoods governed by an HOA, work to create a culture of collaboration instead of conflict. By elevating rules over relationships in our communities, and turning to third parties to resolve our disputes, we’re tearing asunder the fragile social fabric of our nation. Rather than policing your neighborhood for people who are violating covenants or making a nuisance, recognize that sharing space — just like practicing democracy — requires patience and compromise, and that resolving disputes with civility is by far the greater good.

But perhaps the easiest way to be a better neighbor is just to be around, and open for interaction. Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor,” theorizes that our increasingly lonesome neighborhoods are the result of “subtle changes in the American routine” that, among other things, have minimized opportunities for chance encounters and casual interactions with our neighbors. Which brings me back to Terry.

Whenever he was home, Terry’s garage door was open, revealing a classic man cave: landscaping equipment, tool racks and meticulously labeled storage boxes lined the walls. But there was also a small, carpeted area with a workbench — not at the back of the garage, but right up front. This was where he drank his coffee in the morning, read the newspaper, listened to the radio and tinkered on his latest project. He and his wife have a comfortable home, as well as a private back porch with gorgeous views. But there he was, day in and day out, perched on an old, uncomfortable stool at the top of his driveway. Why? “It’s the only chance to connect with people,” he told me. “People are so private these days — I sort of have to create the chance to interact,” he said. 

I’m not one to turn my garage into a living room, but because of Terry, I’ve begun to see that small actions matter. I now leave my front door open more often and sit on my porch to read a book or have lunch, instead of inside. I now make it a point to leave the garage door open as I unload groceries from the car, and stop to chat when I see a neighbor, rather than simply waving as I drive by. 

The fact is that seemingly insignificant behaviors accumulate over time into patterns, which eventually solidify into norms that ultimately define the culture and feel of our communities.

These patterns and norms are not always positive. They can be subtle but powerful signals that say to those around us, “Leave me alone, and I’ll do the same for you” or “Sorry, I’m too busy to connect.”

Or, as Terry did, we can signal to our neighbors “Here I am, let’s be friends” and “I’m here to help.” Making subtle changes to our routines is an easily accessible starting point for reinvigorating our neighborhoods — and our democracy. 

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In honor of National Good Neighbor Day, resolve to make changes in your own behavior that will strengthen your community. Then go to nationalgoodneighborday.com and take “The ‘Good Neighbor’ Pledge”:

I pledge to be the “good neighbor.” With the goal of becoming a more connected and caring community, I will be a person who lives with kindness and concern for my neighbors. I’ll take the first step by connecting with neighbors and introduce myself. I will practice the “good neighbor mindset” to make connections, invitations, stay aware, and be available to my neighbors. Good neighbors make great neighborhoods.

And great neighborhoods make a great nation.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett is the coauthor with Robert D. Putnam of “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” and “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” She is also a founding contributor to “Weave: The Social Fabric Project,” an Aspen Institute initiative. Garrett holds a degree in government from Harvard University and is a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Keene, New Hampshire.

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