Neighborhood watch, old style
May 7, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

We’ve been hearing the term “neighborhood watch” a lot lately, ever since a guy in Florida, who was apparently a neighborhood watch captain, gunned down one of his neighbors.

The concept of a neighborhood watch is nothing new, but back when I was growing up they didn’t have a special name for it – it was just people being good neighbors.

They didn’t have officers in the “neighborhood watch” back then either, but I guess they didn’t need them.

If you were messing around in the block west of my house, old man Newman would watch you. If you went a bit further, Mr. Lund would take over.

If you were carrying on your activities, whatever they were, on the block east of our house, Mr. Gray would see you.

Up the street to the north, you would enter old LeRoy’s jurisdiction, or that of Mrs. Grias. And so it went, in all directions.

South of our house, and across the street, the widow Rouleau had a commanding view of the alley and the avenue from her porch. She didn’t get around much anymore in the years when I was growing up, but there was nothing wrong with her eyesight.

One couldn’t get away with much back then, even if that had been one’s intention, because all of these neighbors knew who we were. They also knew our brothers and sisters and where we lived.

Perhaps more importantly, they knew who our parents were, and would not hesitate to pick up the phone and call them if they observed things about which they thought our parents ought to know.

If our behavior was such that these neighbors determined immediate corrective action was called for, they would attend to that, too, either by hollering at us out the window or from the front porch, or coming right out into the street or alley and giving us a piece of their mind.

In those days, our friends’ parents were just as likely to clip us one upside the head as our own parents if we had it coming.

Adults in that era generally knew how to command attention on the part of young people. They didn’t care much about being our friends. They were mainly concerned with keeping us on the right track so that maybe, by some miracle, we might turn out to be productive, responsible adults one day.

Back in those days, we had a lot more freedom. We could be out having fun for hours on end, and we didn’t have to be under our parents’ thumbs. We were fully aware that any illicit activity would get back to our parents before we got home, and we behaved accordingly.

We didn’t have cell phones or the Internet or text messaging back then, but information traveled just as quickly around the neighborhood if there was any mischief afoot.

The old-fashioned version of the neighborhood watch wasn’t all negative, either. It was as much about helping others as keeping an eye on them.

In my teenage years, if I was hitchhiking down by the freeway, it was not uncommon for Cliff Nelson or one of my other neighbors to pick me up and drop me somewhere nearer my destination.

Cliff never talked much. He always drove nice cars and dressed respectably, but there was a tiny sparkle in his pale blue eyes, set deep in his ruddy face, that made me think there had been a time in his life when he sowed a few wild oats of his own.

I like to think he saw me as a sort of kindred spirit, and on those occasions when he dropped me off along the road with a wave, I often saw a small smile cross his face as I closed the door, as if he was remembering days gone by.

I don’t remember anyone ever getting shot by a member of that old-school version of the neighborhood watch, although old man Newman used to assail us with some pretty juicy threats and ripe language when he caught us climbing his trees and liberating a few of his apples.

He used to go around with a kind of pinched expression on his face, like maybe his shoes were too tight or something, but he never shot at us.

There was a difference in the perception of a neighborhood watch when I was growing up.

Maybe this was because people knew their neighbors back then.

People knew each other because instead of hiding away, locked in their houses in front of computers or giant TV screens, they spent time in their neighborhoods. They sat out on front porches or worked in their yards and talked to each other and got to know one another.

Today, we have replaced front porches with decks that are hidden away at the back of our houses so we don’t even have to look at one another, much less talk to each other.

Perhaps another reason people didn’t get shot by the neighborhood watch back then comes down to philosophy.

Maybe the concept of neighborhood watch in those days was based on love and concern, rather than hate and fear. It makes a difference.

Some people say it is a different world today. Maybe it is, but I can’t help wondering why that has to be so.

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