Neighborly harmony is a thing devotedly to be wished for. It is not easy to achieve, and I’ve read plenty in the course of my research on community about battles over hedges (a huge issue in the UK), loud music, and lawn and garden housekeeping. It’s easy to avoid neighbors today. I know someone who has lived in in a crowded suburb in the Silicon Valley for decades without speaking to a neighbor or even knowing their names. In many places, people simply drive in and out of the driveway, and install high fences.

But in my neighborhood, we walk. The first warm day of spring is guaranteed to bring people out, and throughout much of the year there are people who routinely walk to town or just walk around the neighborhood. But there was no way to connect with people you didn’t already know, and although New Englanders will often nod in greeting or lift their hand to a passing car, they do not start conversations with strangers. So I had the idea of installing a bulletin board on my corner, built along the lines of a board we had in Camberwell, where I lived in London. It was always the first place to go if you needed a nanny or wanted to sell something. Then a couple came along, introduced themselves, and said that a board was great but it wasn’t enough. So I gathered up some emails and launched a listserv – a Google Group – and called it TheHillGB. Over the 18 months it’s been running, membership has gone over 120, and it’s become the place to go.

In a few minutes I’ll be heading up Hollenbeck to a gathering that began with sad email on the list:

Hello to all,
About three hours ago I had a troubling experience. While I was practicing my pipes, a police officer pulled up in front of my driveway and told me that a neighbor had complained that I was too loud. He said that the person who called said that it is usually not an issue because I normally practice inside. This, of course, is not true, since I have been playing outside for 15 years. This is the first I have ever heard of any complaint, either in person or through the police. The inaccurate statement about my practicing leads me to one of two conclusions. The complainant may have just moved here. A much more disturbing possibility that I must consider is that someone who has been a long time neighbor has been offended by my playing for years and finally complained. If that is the case, I’m sorry.
Out of respect for the police officer, I stopped immediately. Since then, I have had many thoughts that I wish had come to me when he was here. For example, are my pipes louder than lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Do I have the legal right to play them during the day? I hope it doesn’t come down to that question, but will I someday be arrested if I persist in playing?
When I think of all the things about which I have never called the police, it saddens me that a “neighbor” has called in the law to prevent me from being who I am. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle this, but if anyone has any insight, I’d like to hear it. If the truth is that most neighbors don’t want to hear me, I can accept that and practice elsewhere. If you’re the person who called the police, send me an email or drop by, so we can discuss a practice time that would work for you. Otherwise, it could be a long, distressing summer. Thanks,
Kevin Kavanah
82 Hollenbeck Avenue

Sign on treeThis lead to a flood of supportive responses and a discussion which seemed a little tense at times (because noise is a neighborly issue and bagpipes are not the only sound to be heard on The Hill). Over the course of two days, as lots of different people chimed in, I noticed something that seemed very important: we started to relax. People began to joke, and to come up with solutions. This has made me think that the less we talk to our neighbors, the harder it is to talk to them, the touchier we get, and so on. We need to talk, we even need a bit of debate and argument. And we need plenty of voices, and different perspectives, and jokes, and of course music and beer – which is on the menu for this evening. I need to find a sweater, too, because it’s chilly – quite appropriate for bagpiping. I was going to get some blue face paint (suggested by one of the writers) but I guess that’ll have to wait for another time.

Above you’ll see a photo I took this afternoon. The sign reads: “If you’re the person who called the police about my bagpipes, you must not know me very well. Knock on the door and tell me your work schedule. I’ll play when you’re not at home. Thanks.”

Tom Christensen at Bagpipe Festival 1987You can read the correspondence for yourself by clicking here, and I’ll post more about developments and get some photos. And here’s a photo of my son Tom, in red, at the national bagpipe competition in Stirling, Scotland. He was two and doesn’t remember it, but I think this is fun because he’s following the online discussion from Beijing, and I’ll bet he’ll be first in line for a seat on the lawn when he comes home next month.

Postscript: There was a big turnout on the sidewalk and we had a kind of neighborhood meet-and-greet while Kevin piped. It’s got me wondering about whether there isn’t some way to have that kind of informal out of doors event more often, and I’ve been thinking about why standing on the sidewalk with a paper cup of wine (thanks to the ever-thoughtful Suzette) is more comfortable for many people than gathering even at Castle Street Cafe. There’s no cost, of course, and going out anywhere in Great Barrington can get expensive quickly. But the big advantage of the sidewalk is that one can leave easily, without fuss or notice – I noticed, though, that no one seemed keen to leave once they got there! 91-year-old Dr Hassett, who’s lived on The Hill all his life, stayed in the car, and Alan Chartock was glued into his lawn chair, but the rest of the crowd milled quite happily, even after the piping finished. And now that we know Jon Greene owns an open piece of lawn in the middle of the neighborhood, there’s talk of a mini-Tanglewood right here on The Hill!

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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