Know Thy Neighbor

By Nina Newhouse

In the suburbs and cities of the 1950s, neighbors spent warm summer nights visiting while the kids played in the street. Parents and grandparents didn’t worry about safety because they knew everyone by name — and strangers were easy to spot.

Now, kids are more likely spending their summers on their iPads instead of playing outside until the streetlights turn on. But even though the days of visiting over iced tea might be long gone, you can still do several things to engage your community — and create a happier, safer neighborhood.

One way to start is by getting to know your neighbors. There are many resources available that encourage positive community reinforcement, especially in this digital age. The National Association of Town Watch (NATW) began as a nonprofit in 1981, a time when crime rates across the country were high. The organization’s mission was to unite neighborhood watch groups that had formed individually across the country and to improve access to resources.

In 1984, the NATW wanted to hold a signature event. Matt Peskin, executive director of the NATW, thought, “What if we asked everyone to sit on their porch and flip on the light?” He realized that “there would be no crime, because everyone would be outside.”

Safety in numbers — and fun

The NATW coordinated this event with the efforts of local police departments and the communities they served, and National Night Out was born. After the success of the inaugural National Night Out, the event continued to grow and quickly came to stand for community members’ commitment to look out for one another and a way to show solidarity against crime.

While its roots were in safety, community — and all its benefits alongside safety — has proven a key to the organization’s continued success. “In 1987, we expanded National Night Out to include parades, barbecues and block parties,” said Peskin. The new, more interactive characteristics of the event led to increased participation, and local law enforcement saw the event as an opportunity to get to know their communities as well as put a spotlight on local issues.

This year, National Night Out falls on Tuesday, August 2. With online registration comes a coordinator toolkit to help plan block parties, festivals and cookouts. No two events are the same, and the resources offered to each participating city enable every community to customize its events to fit its own culture and needs.

In 1984, two million National Night Out participants in 400 communities in 23 states turned their porch lights on and visited with their neighbors. This year, more than 27 million people in 16,000 communities in all 50 states will take part in various local activities.

“This event encourages communities to get to know their neighbors and local law enforcement,” says Peskin. He points out that 95 percent of arrests are the result of a 911 call, adding, “When you know your neighbors, you are more likely to pay attention.

Dogs and digital options

Staying in touch with neighbors is the single most effective way to reduce crime in your neighborhood. And there are many ways to jump-start those relationships and even forge new and lasting friendships.

To that end, the NATW recently launched its Dog Walker Watch program. There are about 75 million dog owners in the country, and many walk their dogs twice a day, rain or shine. They may use their dog-walking time to text, makes calls or check Facebook, but as Peskin points out, “People who walk their dogs daily know their neighborhoods better than anyone.” NATW hopes that focusing on their surroundings will encourage dog walkers to get to know their neighbors and to notice if something is off.

And while in some respects, technology has distanced us from one another, it has also reconnected us in many ways. Websites like the online social network Nextdoor use the power of technology to build stronger, safer communities everywhere. Nextdoor works like a bulletin board, where neighbors request and recommend products and services; help find lost pets; report suspicious activity or crime; and even post jobs, yard sales and community events. Simply find your address in Nextdoor’s database, verify you receive bills there to confirm you’re a member of the community, and you’re in.

HOW TO GET STARTED Visit to register your town for this year’s National Night Out. Organize community participation in an event like Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll’s EverWalk. Nyad’s mission is to spark an epic revolution: to get millions of Americans away from their screens and walking. Register at social networking site Nextdoor or other local crime watch sites like