Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It is time to bring back the "nosy neighbor"

Like many people in the country, I’ve been more or less transfixed by the horrific kidnapping story in Cleveland. This is partially due to my very robust true crime obsession, but also because so much of the setting and many of the people remind me very much of my neighborhood in the Northwest corner of Hamtramck, Michigan. Unlike those who have watched this story unfold from the comfort of their suburban surroundings in a semi-detached way, I’ve watched it thinking, “This feels way too familiar.”

I’m not suggesting that one of my neighbors is currently holding women captive against their will. I sure hope that is not the case. "How could nobody have known something so horrible was happening?” has been a common refrain since the story broke on Monday. In neighborhoods like mine, made up of very disparate groups, people don’t often talk to each other and socialize. Some, like the large Bengali population in my city, are even further isolated from their neighbors by language and cultural barriers. Many people are renters who, judging from the condition of their properties, don’t feel rooted in the community and have really shitty people for landlords. Several of the houses on my street (and MANY more in the Detroit and Highland Park neighborhoods that border us) are unoccupied and/or in serious disrepair.

Additionally, many people generally don’t like or trust law enforcement. And it’s hard to heal damage and build bridges when our police and fire departments are constantly facing the threat (and often the reality of) budget cuts and layoffs. City services workers are doing the best they can with limited resources and staffing. As much as I would like the reality to be different, under these kinds of conditions, sometimes things fall through the cracks or go unnoticed in neighborhoods like this. Even horrific, nightmarish things.

It dawned on me while reading the reports on how often/if ever neighbors called the police about that horror house in Cleveland that many people don’t really understand how calling the police works. I am no expert, but here’s what I think is super important: When you call the police about something, that complaint is kept on file. You might feel like it’s a “waste of time” to call the police for the _nth time about something you’ve yet to see any real action on, but it gives the police yet another piece of evidence to help make their case should they get to the point where an arrest can be made. You’re providing yet another dot that can be connected. The police need the help of civilians to get these dots. They can’t do it on their own. If you want a more cynical spin on it, think of it this way: The police might not act unless you and others make a lot of noise. So keep calling on stuff if it doesn’t change/gets worse/happens again. I’ve had more than one police officer use the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” in conversations about when/if they should be contacted about something.

We as citizens are just as important in this picture as law enforcement. If there’s one glaring lesson to be learned from Cleveland, it’s that we need to look out for each other and our neighborhoods. Too often people shy away from “getting involved” and insulate themselves from those around them. This is hurting us and the quality of life in our neighborhoods. That’s why it is time to bring back the nosy neighbor.

I’m not suggesting you immediately start doing neighborhood patrols or baking cookies for the family that lives downstairs from you. Though those would be pretty awesome things to do. Instead, I ask you to consider the following questions:

  • Do you know the names of the people that live on either side of you and across the street? 
  • When something is off in your neighborhood, do you take the time to bring it to somebody’s attention/fix it? 
  • Are you aware of which houses on your street are rentals and what the current status is of the ones that are unoccupied? 
  • Have you ever heard or witnessed a domestic dispute and decided against calling the police because, “it’s not my business?”
That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about when I say “nosy neighbor.” It’s not even being nosy - it used to be called, “being a good neighbor.” It’s easy to insulate and take a “mind your business” approach, but we need to fill in the gaps and take initiative if we want to see anything change. And change doesn’t happen when we take the easy route.


Linda Gebelein said...

Well said, Laura. And what about calling the cops if something doesn't look right? If a panel van is pulled up in my neighbor's driveway and items are being removed from the house I'm calling the cops. Too often we see things and do nothing.

(Laura) said...

Yup. If something is out of place or doesn't look right, it's a good enough reason to call.

just a grrl said...

Great post. The story out of Cleveland is astonishing on so many different levels but you've tapped into something that really strikes home. These girls (nee women) weren't kept for a couple days in an old farmhouse outside city limits. There wasn't an underground bunker miles away from civilization. They spent years (YEARS!) in a house in a well-populated neighborhood. It always seems strange and a little sad to me to not know one's immediate neighbors. Worse to not to take soooooome sort of action when something just doesn't look or seem right. It's up to us.

Christine said...

Good article Laura.

Two helpful things I have learned recently:

1. Call Telephone Crime Reporting (T.C.R.) at 313-267-4600 for non-emergency calls (here us the link to see guidelines:

2. Call 911 for emergency calls. However (at least in CA) if you are using a cell phone, your call goes to state highway dispatch and has to be transferred, which can take a lot of time. LAPD has a specific, local 911 number to call for cell phones. Does Detroit have the same? I couldn't find it online. I got this information directly from a police officer in LA through my work....