Channeling StateFarm: How to be a Good Neighbor in a Gentrifying Neighborhood

By: Kristin Brey

Each morning, we tear off a page from our daily calendar and, each morning, there is a new national holiday we didn’t know existed. If you don’t have a tear off calendar to remind you of each nebulous observance, social media and trending hashtags will. And today, my friends, is no different: It’s National Good Neighbor Day! A day for people to remind themselves what it means to be a good neighbor by doing something helpful for the people around them. Which, with the divided strife we are bearing witness daily, actually doesn’t feel so nebulous right now.

Yet, what does “being a good neighbor” look like when you live and work in a sprawling metropolis? I grew up in Nakoma, an idyllic Norman Rockwell-eque neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. Quintessential good neighbors surrounded me.  Annual Fourth of July backyard BBQs.  Child produced backyard theater productions. Babysitting. House sitting. Dog sitting. Kickball games. Neighbors calling my parents to inform them my brother was having a party while they were out of town.  You know, middle America, apple pie, picturesque neighborly stuff.

  Created on canva.com

Created on canva.com

Since leaving that midwest cocoon 15 years ago, I have only lived in major metropolitan areas.  It’s been easy to see my neighbors as strangers ever since. In a city, it feels normal stick to yourself and your friend group.  To tuck yourself inside your tiny apartment and avoid the people living next door. Hell, we can barely bother to look up from our phones when we walk down the street. That is, until we slam into another eye contact avoidant urbanite.

Don’t get me wrong. I prefer living in big cities for many reasons. I do not see myself going back to a Madison sized city or the suburbs anytime soon, if ever.  And I’m not alone. Educated Millennials are locating and staying in cities in numbers greater than other groups.  Many of us “urban transplants” are avoiding returning to whatever “Nakoma” we came grew up in. Instead, we are choosing to live in metropolitan areas without being gouged by metropolitan prices.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, these preferences and this trend have led to gentrifying neighborhoods across the country. Many of us, myself included, have chosen to live in neighborhoods that look different from the ones we grew up in.  And, in turn, we are the reason those neighborhoods now look different to the residents who grew up there.  But,  this article is not about the arguments and ramifications of gentrification. And it’s not an article to make you feel guilty over your choice of surroundings.

On today, National Good Neighbor Day, this article offers suggestions on how to be a good neighbor if you have found yourself, like I have, in a neighborhood with a population that doesn’t look like you.

5 ways to be a good neighbor in your gentrifying neighborhood

1. Shop at Mr. Mango’s, despite the convenience of Whole Foods.

Since moving to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I have walked two blocks to get my groceries from the closest local grocer, Mr. Mango’s.  This coming January, though, a Whole Foods 365 is opening on IN my building. That kind of convenience, not to mention brand recognition, will inevitably rip business away from Mr. Mango’s and every other local grocer in the area.

This is a perfect example of how difficult it is for small businesses to survive gentrification. There is no rent control on commercial spaces, so not only do these establishments have new powerful competition, but they also are suffering from skyrocketing rent.

As a good neighbor, I can walk the two extra blocks to continue to patronize Mr. Mango’s. And the local dive bar. And coffee shop. And the dollar store.  I’m not sure what your neighborhood establishment is, but I am sure you have one.  Be a good neighbor and give them some business today.

  New Luxury building next to the historic BAM in Fort Greene Brooklyn  Photo via    StreetEasy

New Luxury building next to the historic BAM in Fort Greene Brooklyn  Photo via StreetEasy

2. Think twice before calling the cops

I’m not advocating for anyone to put their safety at risk; if your life is in danger, by all means, press 9-1-1. But, if you have a noise complaint or someone is arguing outside, think of other conflict resolution options before involving the police. Is it a situation that could be solved by a conversation? Is it something you should adapt to now that you live in a different environment?

If you live in a gentrifying area, the chances are high that your new neighborhood has a less than trusting relationship with the police. While you may think a person has nothing to fear if they didn’t do anything wrong, there is a lot of evidence that shows the contrary to that.  Be a good neighbor and be a creative problem solver.

3. Learn about gentrification

Rather than feeling guilty or not caring about how and why your neighborhood is changing, be proactive and educate yourself on the real forces behind the change. It’s a complex issue that goes beyond where you, individually, choose to live. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn more about it on a macro and micro level.  Conduct simple google search of “(your city) gentrification”. I like documentaries, watch HBO’s Class Divide or, if you’re a podcast person, I also recommend downloading WNYC’s series “There Goes The Neighborhood”. Even though it focuses on Brooklyn, it has a lot of information on gentrification in general. Even if you feel like it is an issue that is bigger than one person can change, you can be a better neighbor by understanding the systemic forces that influence the urban planning in your city.

4. Listen, Learn and Get Involved (in that order)

 Most likely, you moved to your neighborhood for more reasons than it just being less expensive. Speaking for myself, one of the many reasons I was drawn to Fort Greene was the energy and the opportunity contribute to its history and culture. A common complaint of gentrification and of gentrifiers is that new tenants expect the neighborhood to adapt to them instead of them adapting.  Be a good neighbor and don’t be that guy.

Instead, be curious and ask your neighbors about the evolution of the neighborhood. What are the best restaurants and stores to check out? What have the struggles been? What improvements have been made and how were they achieved? Once you know the history, you can explore ways to be an active participant in your community – whether that means staying informed on local issues, making sure to vote locally or volunteering for neighborhood organizations, there is a myriad of ways for you to be involved. Just ask.

  Biggie Mural is Fort Greene Brooklyn.                                                   Photo via        http://www.nydailynews.com/

Biggie Mural is Fort Greene Brooklyn.                                                   Photo via   http://www.nydailynews.com/

5. Kindness. It doesn’t cost a damn thing. Sprinkle that sh*t everywhere

My first weekend in Fort Greene, I found myself standing next to a middle-aged gentleman and his teenage daughter while we both waited for the crosswalk light to change. Without hesitation, he loudly and proudly looked at me and exclaimed, “Beautiful day for December, huh?  How’s your day going, ma’am.” I hid my dismay of being referred to as ma’am and proceeded to exchange niceties with him until the light changed and we went our separate ways.

That first exchange set the example for how people treat each other in this neighborhood.  You acknowledge strangers.  You look up from your phone to introduce yourself on the elevator.  You hold the door open.  You offer a kind smile to the mother whose three years old is having a meltdown. You give directions when someone asks where the closest C train stop is.   This is not the stereotype of rude New York. In fact, it’s the friendliest place I have lived since leaving Wisconsin. The jury is still out if I would feel that way if I wasn’t proactively friendly.

While it should be obvious, just saying hi to someone can go a long way. It’s easy to keep yourself and try to be invisible, especially when you’re uncomfortable, but it’s not useful and most definitely is not neighborly.  So be a good neighbor by being the person who smiled first instead of the one who didn’t smile back.

I’ll end by quoting what Jimmy Carter issued in his Proclamation for National Good Neighbor Day:

“…we are mindful that the noblest human concern is concern for others. 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 neighbors where we give each other an opportunity to share and feel part of a larger family…”

As urban transplants, re-creating a feeling of neighborhood and being a part of a larger family doesn’t have to be difficult.  We just have to be proactive and start by being a good neighbor ourselves.

Resource to learn more:


Kristin Brey is a freelance writer, resistance activist and recovering tech sales executive.  Originally from Madison, WI, she now hangs out in Brooklyn, NY after a couple pit stops Los Angeles, Berkeley, and San Francisco. After spending her twenties managing sales development teams in Silicon Valley, she now writes, educates and advocates about progressive politics while sharing experience and advice from years in a boys club.

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