How potlucks help home values (© Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Great neighbors are the answer to a lot of the questions life throws at you, whether you're tearing out your hair over speeding cars, scared of possible drug activity down the block or just need a cup of sugar or a back-fence friend.

"Realtors tell you, 'It's location, location, location.' But really, what makes a great location? Good housing stock, good schools nearby and a neighborhood where, when there's a problem, it's solved quickly by the people who live there, and it's a fun place to live," says Jay Walljasper, author of "The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking." Great neighborhoods, Walljasper says, both support real-estate values and enrich lives.

The most visible benefits of close neighborhoods are strong property values, good schools and reduced crime. Dennis P. Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says crime is lower where people say they feel more attached to the neighborhood, more social connectedness, more responsibility for what goes on around them and a greater willingness to intervene when they suspect criminal activity.

"Neighborhoods are everything" when it comes to selling your home, says Lovinda Beal, a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker Northern California. As property values rise, a strong neighborhood adds to the home's value; when sales are slow and prices flat or dropping, homes hold value better in strong neighborhoods, she says.

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In Beal's area — the pricey mid-Peninsula part of Silicon Valley — many who could buy lavish, secluded compounds choose instead to settle in neighborhoods with a sense of community, where their children can ride bikes and walk to friends' homes, neighbors plant flowers on parking strips and the barista at the local coffee shop knows their names.

"It feels like a good investment, even if you have tons of money and could have more privacy," Beal says.

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There are plenty more benefits to close neighborhoods, including:

  • Shared clout to resist bad development and encourage beneficial projects;
  • A rich social life and ready friendships; a feeling of connection and belonging;
  • Advocacy and support for strong neighborhood schools;
  • Kid-friendly streets and parks;
  • Cooperative gardens and pea patches;
  • Help with your home-repair projects.
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It starts with trouble
In spite of the many benefits of building strong communities, it usually takes threats — particularly crime and land-use proposals — to galvanize a neighborhood, says Elton Gatewood, president of Neighborhoods USA, a national group of organizers from local governments and neighborhoods.

In Tonya Hamilton-Nisbet's Madison, Wis., community, neighbors became fed up with a county road on which drivers sped "like somebody set their underwear on fire." At a public meeting about the road in 2005, residents decided to revitalize their defunct East Buckeye Neighborhood Association. They went on to persuade the city to install a stop sign near a school crossing. The group still works on traffic calming, participating in an annual, citywide campaign to get drivers to slow down and publishing occasional pleas to residents in its quarterly newsletter.

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The association also expanded its reach, holding annual garage sales and summer picnics, contributing to food bank drives and a handicapped-accessible school playground and helping kids pay for school field trips.

"It doesn't even take a lot of people," Hamilton-Nisbet says. Recently, East Buckeye and seven other Madison neighborhoods won a Neighborhoods USA award for their multiyear effort to revitalize Madison's neglected Stoughton Road.

In Bellingham, Wash., a convenience-store owner in the Columbia neighborhood was shot in the face during a robbery in 2006. (The owner lived.) "Somebody said, 'We cannot let this go on in the neighborhood,' " neighborhood activist Flip Breskin says.

Neighbors spread the word to shop at the store and leave a donation for the shopkeeper's family, who lived in the same building. A homeless man pitched in to clean up the damage from the shooting. Then the newspaper picked up the story, and so many shoppers arrived that a line stretched around the block. A big food chain sent inventory to stock the store and donated employees to help. This illustrates how a close neighborhood can circle the wagons in the event of a tragedy, Breskin says.

Potluck club to the rescue
A neighborhood is much better able to respond to a threat, however, if an informal social network already is in place. Otherwise, "you're behind the eight ball," Walljasper says.

Take his neighborhood, for instance. He lives in Minneapolis, a town full of strong neighborhoods and great neighborhood businesses. But Walljasper and his wife couldn't afford to buy into one of them. They eventually bought a home where there wasn't a strong sense of community, he says. But then they and some neighbors started a Friday night potluck club. "There was no real agenda. These were just people who were tired from a long week at work and wanted to get together."

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Loose as their organization was, when the city unveiled plans to widen a neighborhood street — the effect would have devastated neighborhood property values, Walljasper says — the potluck club sprang into action. Because members' bonds already were strong, they could act quickly. They not only stopped the street plan, they went on to launch an effort that, 15 years later, got the city to narrow the controversial street.

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Walljasper says that, had their informal network not already existed, the powerful streets department would have prevailed before neighbors could get organized.