Creating Neighborhoods Through Digital Front Doors

Tim Brister —  January 11, 2013 — 10 Comments

Next DoorI live in the city of Cape Coral, FL. It’s a fascinating city in many ways. A few years ago, it was one of the top ten fastest growing cities in the United States. More recently, it has held top ranking for highest numbers and percentages of foreclosures and short sales in an area with the worst performing job market of the 100 metropolitan areas of the United States. Cape Coral has massive potential unfortunately ruined with horrible planning. It’s a story that advertises paradise with a much darker reality.

The city is built like a massive grid (see the image above). Only a handful of neighborhoods in the midst of 165,000 people. I would say 90% of the city lives without any communal connections in their immediate geographic context. It wasn’t made to be this way. Cape Coral was to be a bedroom community. Business development was severely discouraged (we don’t have an actual “downtown” or business district). Because it was once swamp land, the developers dug over 400 miles of canals throughout the city (more than any other city in the world). According to Wikipedia, Cape Coral was a “master-planned, pre-plotted community” which means us 165,000 were to fit into a postmodern template where neighborhoods didn’t exist. Because the city expanded so quick with developers, most of the homes don’t have running water or sewage (instead use well water and septic systems), and because there was only a few select neighborhood developments, the majority of the homes are randomly scattered (in my case, I have 13 vacant lots surrounding my house, and an additional 5 foreclosed (empty) homes past that).

The city is much like the boats that line the canals. It is without roots and is about as stable as the water upon which it sits. You are hard pressed to find indigenous folks here with multi-generational roots (the city was started in 1958). There aren’t stories that transcend generations or narratives that shape the culture as a whole. Rather, it is like a jigsaw puzzle. The people moving in are primarily (a) retired couples from the north who have intentions to “snowbird” part of the year and perhaps move down full-time at a later time and (b) Caribbean islanders (Cuban, Haitian, Dominican, etc.) and long with other Hispanic ethnicities migrating from the east coast (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale) looking for work in the blue-collar service industry. Then there’s the investor piece to the puzzle–people who buy property with no intentions on living in the city. So in any given street, the makeup of the community could be:

house 1:  low middle-class full time resident (highly transient due to low-performing economy)
house 2: foreclosed home
house 3: investment home from someone in Europe
house 4: home own by snowbirds in town 3-6 months out of the year
(and in between these homes are numerous vacant lots)

Because there are not roots, it is very unlikely for people to stay. Job security in many cases is determined by your ability to own and operate a small business in the service industry. The moment you get to know someone, you find a UHaul truck in their driveway. On my street, only one of my neighbors has been here longer than I have (four years).

As you can imagine, this journey of dwelling in this city has been a real challenge. At times, I have just waved the white flag and given up on building community. Pessimistically, I envied living in a college town, because you would at least have folks around for four years (or more). Of all the places I have lived, I have become convinced this is the hardest city I have ever lived for the purpose of fostering community and living on mission.

Burnt EmbersBut, this is my mission field, I am renewing my commitment this year to be the best neighbor I can be and positively invest in the welfare of my city. One of the creative ways I’m seeking to do this is through an online platform called Next Door. Throughout this tool, I am gonna try to create a neighborhood where one does not exist and bring those around me together. Here’s a brief overview from Next Door about what they’re about:

Why is this so encouraging to me? Well, it is going to provide me the opportunity to make my neighboring efforts to “stick.” By that I mean, I am going to be able to transcend the current dilemma seen above (house 1, house 2, house 3, house 4) by networking those who are present and interested in helping one another out. I believe it will help me personally know my neighbors so that I can practically serve my neighbors so that I can genuinely love my neighbors.

Here’s another big reason I’m encouraged. People no longer come to their front door. If they do, it is with a shot gun and a threat. You are a stranger and likely a very dangerous one at that. First places (the place of the home) are fortified with fences, security systems, and blinds. However, people are open and actually want community. And they are finding this community through social media and social networking (principally Facebook). So the front door of the 21st century neighborhood is no longer the front door of the house but the social networking invite. That’s how you enter into their lives.

But here’s the difference with Next Door. Those in your online network are actually your REAL neighbors. They are people whose lives you gain access and can actually make investment in the world you are living in. The front door of the virtual world through Next Door has the potential to become the key to unlock the front door of people’s lives (and their homes).

I say potential because I’m just getting started in 2013. My goal is to have 50 neighbors networked together, forming a new neighborhood I’m calling Burnt Embers. It’s an experiment that I hope will become a precedent, perhaps for our city. We need neighborhoods, not just “master-planned, pre-plotted communities”. I’m committed to giving it my best shot, to living incarnationally and on mission so that Jesus would be magnified in my life, my neighborhood, and my city.

For those interested in this kind of thing, I will try to keep you updated. May God help me form a neighborhood where His kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

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10 responses to Creating Neighborhoods Through Digital Front Doors

  1. Great ideas into reaching an urban setting in todays world. Cities are the beast of ministry. We are engaging a mega-city ourselves. I am gonna toss around these things in my mind. Thanks for the post.

  2. Great to read Tim. Looking forward to hearing more about this. I recall reading about Nextdoor when they launched and thought it had great potential. Glad it is still going and growing.

  3. Stephen Gonzalez January 22, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    This is interesting. Me and my wife have been able to build with many of our neighbors in our apartment complex. Sadly pretty much all of the ones we built serious relationships with moved because they need more space via incoming babies etc.

    We want to see this year as one to re-engage and take those risk necessary to meet knew people and show of Jesus but we also want to learn to engage the whole complex not just next door.

    Looking forward to reading what you learn.

  4. Thanks Tim,

    I’ve actually started a Nextdoor site for my neighborhood and I am eager to see it be useful this next year in helping me get to know my neighbors in Wichita. I am praying it serves you well in FL too!

  5. Looks like a cool opportunity Tim! Since Lehigh is a mirror image in many ways, I will look into this. Thanks for posting this!

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