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Why I'll take Cleveland over LA, SF, and yes, Paris

by Anna Soref, Editor, Natural Vitality Living

We hear a lot these days about creating community. Maybe it's shared gardening, supporting local business, or a street cleanup. In my leafy little Cleveland neighborhood of Shaker Heights, I've experienced a sort of natural home-grown community like never before. And I've lived in some pretty progressive places—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and Boulder, Colorado.

Interestingly, it took moving to the often-maligned Midwest to do more than just meet the neighbors to develop community in action.

It began the day we moved into our house a year ago. Neighbors poured out of the woodwork to come by and welcome us, offering help and even cake. I was so shocked I called my dad in my native Los Angeles to report. He agreed that it was astonishing. He and my stepmom know a very tiny percentage of residents in their huge condo complex. There the hallways are always so empty I've wondered if people press their ears to the door to ensure no one's around before they dash to their cars.

Upon moving into our new home, we were quickly invited to the biweekly Thirsty Thursdays. It goes like this: In the warm months neighbors congregate in a designated driveway to enjoy drinks while the kids play and the grown-ups hang out simply talking. Our first TT included a couple in their seventies, a single mom, and a family recently transplanted from Germany. I was impressed with the diversity level. People brought their own beverages—anything from a can of beer to mineral water. One person brought a sack of smoked almonds to share. It wasn't about a great wine or cheese; it was about hanging out with neighbors.

My first block party that summer was an eye-opener. This casual free-for-all in late August began at 9:00 a.m. and continued until at least midnight. Basically we block off the street with barricades, the kids run wild all day and night, and the grown-ups come and go as desired, with the understanding that the kids will be watched by other adults. Events are planned throughout the day. One neighbor filled a clean rain gutter with ice-cream sundaes, and the kids scooped them up in a frenzy. A "Rocket Car" shuttles loads of people for open-air tours around town. What struck me about the event was the length and casual attitude around it. Again, it's about hanging out. It's about talking and really getting to know one another—the way you can do only when hours are spent sitting around a fire or in a lawn chair watching the kids play.

It was at my first block party that I met Julie Konrad and learned about Luna Presence Yoga. Konrad, a yoga instructor on our street, gutted her living room and transformed it into a yoga studio. I now go weekly, and as much as I love the yoga, it's the shared tea afterward that makes it so unique. It's very uplifting to look out the window on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to see neighbors, yoga mats tucked underarm, walking to class.

I recently had the opportunity to experience my first neighborhood Mulch Day. A couple of people head to a landscape supply yard and load up a truck with mulch. Back on the street, everyone wheelbarrows it around to the different houses. One woman handed out popsicles to the kids. When the work is done and everyone's back is aching, we meet at a house for drinks, to celebrate the beginning of summer and yack. Again the barricades go up, the kids take over the street, and a loooong community gathering ensues.

The latest community endeavor that has my attention is the Avalon Growing Community. This group's mission is to create wicking garden beds along our street. The boxes would be tended by everyone and then used for community meals. I love the idea of produce boxes around the community; you need some mint for a recipe, you grab it.

What strikes me most about my community is the genuine quality it resonates. People just want to hang out. There's no other agenda. It's not about showing off one's house, one's cooking or one's clothes.

We're not all cut from the same cloth: there are Democrats and Republicans, construction workers and lawyers; some have kids, some don't—none of this matters.

I'm learning this type of community building creates a network of individuals and families that support one another in myriad ways. It could be using each other's businesses, finding a new babysitter, or delivering meals to the family that just had a baby. It could be holding the first Peace Camp that's taking place this August. Here, kids on the street will attend a fun day camp run by a few parents.

In addition to my own enjoyment of what this type of neighborhood offers, I love what it's demonstrating to my children. They witness spontaneous gatherings, helpfulness, and the pure happiness that accompanies the simple joy of true neighborliness that goes beyond "Hello" while getting into your car in the morning.