I joined the website Nextdoor.com this past spring, after a friend said it was better than Craigslist for buying used furniture. Having been a “neighbor” on Nextdoor for the last six months, I will add that it’s also a great place to find a catsitter and an effective way to convince yourself that you live in a lawless hellscape, where you will repeatedly be victimized by violent teens, shameless thieves, and shady contractors.
Nextdoor is probably good for much more than those things, but in my neck of South Philly, “crime and safety” is the most popular category of posts on the neighborhood-based social networking site.
Package theft posts go up multiple times a day, many of them with accompanying Nest videos showing the thieves in action. Then there are posts about broken car windows, stolen trash cans and recycling bins, followed in frequency by posts about phone snatchers, graffiti, teen muggings and jumpings, and gunshots. (Or was it fireworks? Who is shooting off fireworks at this time of night!)
For a while this summer, it seemed like local shop owners were posting at least once a week about shoplifters, which brought calls for more police foot patrols and some grumbling about the charging practices of the DA’s office. Just a week ago, I opened my Nextdoor email digest to see a post titled, “I thought sexual abuse only happened to other people's children. Then I woke up.” This is an important thing to know, yes, but, my God, will someone please think of my emotional fragility?
I do think Nextdoor is a better social network than Twitter and Facebook, though: The site does a very good job of verifying your identity, and you can only interact with users who live in a tight geographical radius determined by your own home address. Once you’ve been approved to use the site, your house shows up as green on a little map of Nextdoor users. While this increases accountability and trust on the platform, it also makes every crime report feel very, very close to home.
My ideal version of me is not bothered by Nextdoor crime posts. He accepts that a higher level of property crime and simple assault is, unfortunately, a tradeoff of living in a big city that is otherwise pretty fantastic. My ideal me keeps his head on a swivel, locks the doors before bed and sleeps soundly knowing that, if someone is foolish or desperate enough to break into a locked-and-occupied house on a narrow street inhabited mostly by families, we will all hear it, and hopefully one of us — perhaps the elderly Italian woman who can see right into my kitchen and probably watches me eat lunch by myself — will call the cops.
The real me, however, spent several sleepless months earlier this year obsessively reading Nextdoor and then nearly jolting out of the bed and onto the floor pretty much every time I heard a car door open. Some nights I would close my eyes and see those doorbell security pictures and my heart would pound. Occasionally, I would slink over to the bedroom window to spy on a particularly loud passerby. Does he live on our street? Why is he slowing down? Why does he have a key to that house? Those small burglars must have let him in. “Daddy” must be his burglar name.
My Nextdoor anxieties came to a head this Halloween, when I filled a plastic green salad bowl with an assortment of only the best mini candy bars, and posted up in a folding chair on our front steps for the first trick-or-treating experience of my adult life.
Things were dead until about 5:45 p.m., when the twilight brought magic: So many kids, so many parents, so many costumes. Every stoop had a neighbor outside greeting people and appraising costumes. As the night reached its zenith, the most famous cat on our block — a solid black fella with gorgeous green eyes and pointy ears — made an appearance, twirling his tail around one of several Mrs. Incredibles, and sending her kids into fits of glee.
I didn’t want the night to wind down: I spent more time chatting with my neighbors in that hour and a half than I had in the previous five months. We talked about our pets and the massive hole in the street that the city waited three weeks to fix. We did not talk about muggings or package thefts at all. It was really nice.
Then, two hours after the last trick-or-treater had come by, my wife and I heard a knock on the door. Just one night earlier, I would’ve heard that knock and imagined something terrible — maybe even fainted. But after a night talking to my neighbors instead of reading their posts, and handing out free stuff to the myriad strangers who dropped in from all over the broader neighborhood, I simply opened the door.
A little girl was standing on our dark stoop wearing what looked like normal school clothes and a plastic tiara. She held a small white bucket with three, maybe four, pieces of candy. Her parents stood a few feet behind her, nervously smiling. When I frowned and held up my hands — the universal sign for “Sorry, we’re out” — her parents called to her in Spanish and motioned for her to leave me alone.
I felt bad for her parents, who either didn’t get the memo about proper Halloween trick-or-treating times or maybe had to work too late to come by when everyone else did. I felt bad for the little girl because a big candy haul is crucial to the Halloween experience and it clearly wasn’t going to happen for her.
We had literally one piece of candy left, which I had been planning to eat. When the little girl ignored her parents and refused to budge, I ducked back into the living room and grabbed the last miniature Kit-Kat and dropped it in her bucket. It was not what she was hoping for; she mumbled thanks and schlepped over to the neighbor’s place.
That night did a number on my neighborhood paranoia: I told my wife afterward that I felt very connected to all of humanity and wanted to get to know all the neighbors and maybe do more stuff with people on our street. (Also, have kids — plural — right away.) For the first night in months, I slept like a baby.
Those feelings were a little less intense the next day, and I have yet to actually invite the neighbors over for dinner. But I have gotten used to the street noises, and to the creak of our old house, and to the fact that every now and again, someone is probably going to steal a package of our stoop.
I’ve also spent way less time on Nextdoor since Halloween: The daily emails about minor crimes now archive directly to their own folder, which I can peruse if I really want to get my heart racing.
But I don't.