March 10, 2011
Jewish ‘Neighborhood’ Chronicler Wins Zócalo Book Prize
How well do you know your neighbors?
For writer Peter Lovenheim, whose book “In the Neighborhood” won the First Annual Zócalo Public Square book prize today, the answer turned out to be: Not all that well.
That’s probably the case for most Americans, and for American Jews. Lovenheim, whose book comes out in paperback in April (Perigee, $13.95), has lived on the same street in a leafy, well-to-do suburb of Rochester, N.Y., for most of his life. In 2000, when a shocking murder-suicide took place in a house just a few doors away from his own, he decided to undertake a quiet—yet radical—experiment.
He would ask his neighbors if he could sleep over at their houses.
His then-teenaged daughter called him crazy. A few of his neighbors said no. One of those who agreed to have him over assured him that the experience would be “boring.” But over the course of three years of research, Lovenheim’s “Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time” turned up a community of people that he never would’ve known otherwise.
Lovenheim met a retired surgeon who lived alone. He finally introduced himself to an elderly woman who didn’t live on his street, but had been walking along it since the 1960s. He even spoke to the friends and relatives of the woman whose husband shot her before he killed himself.
Lovenheim sees his concern with community building as part of a long line of Jewish thinking. “Judaism has long been concerned with how we define our neighbors and how we treat our neighbors and with the moral qualities of our neighborhoods,” Lovenheim said. He mentioned the rules of eruv, a rabbinical device that circumscribes a neighborhood to allow observant Jews to carry objects from one house to another on Shabbat as one piece of evidence.
“But the European shtetls are gone. The immigrant enclave communities from the 1920s are gone. The largely Jewish suburbs of the ‘50s and ‘60s are gone,” Lovenheim said. “And so today, most American Jews, like everyone else, live in multicultural cities or suburbs where we don’t any longer know “all the neighbors,” or even most of the neighbors. Sometimes we don’t even know the people three houses down.”
His unusual research process involved sleeping in guest rooms, using other peoples’ towels, and eating breakfasts and lunches at the tables of people who had been strangers to him just hours earlier. More often than not, Lovenheim’s subjects told him that the people in the neighborhood didn’t seem to want to know one another all that well.
“There are no neighbors here,” Lou Guzzetta, the 81 year-old retired surgeon, tells Lovenheim.
By the book’s end, it’s clear that Lovenheim isn’t just telling the tale; he’s making an impact upon it, weaving together his community in new ways. Today, Lovenheim guesses that he knows “a majority” of the people who live in the 35 other houses on Sandringham Road.
Lovenheim’s family moved into the house when his youngest son was just one year old. Now Lovenheim’s two daughters now have moved to other cities, and his son is 17 and plans to head off to college in the fall.
So Lovenheim is preparing to sell the house. He’s not sure where he’ll move next, but he’s encouraged by the reception of his book that no matter where that is, he’ll find people looking to make connections when he gets there.
“The desire to connect, to be in a community is pretty much a universal desire,” he said. “While everybody has different needs for privacy or even shyness, for the most part, anybody who makes the effort to reach out to a neighbor, more often than not they’ll find somebody on the other side of the door who’s open to connection and being approached.”
“In the Neighborhood” beat out two other books to win the Zócalo prize—Jane Brox’s “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” and “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. The film rights to Lovenheim’s book have been optioned by Julia Roberts’ Red Om Films.
The award, which is supported by the Southern California Gas Company, comes with a $5,000 cash prize. Lovenheim is set to speak at an award ceremony for the Zócalo Book Prize at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 8.