National Night Out: Who Are You Living Next To?

You should go out tonight! Not just because it’s August and there’s not much time left before Labor Day (the unofficial credits reel of the summer), but because today is National Night Out. This isn’t a version of Glamour’s National Date night, but instead a program that brings communities closer together. Plus there’s probably going to be a potluck or barbecue within walking distance of your home.

Capitol Hill FountainThe National Association of Town Watch came up with the National Night Out in 1984 as a way to put a face on a neighborhood watch for people who aren’t active in their community care programs. It’s a chance to demonstrate neighborhood solidarity, foster relationships between local groups and city police, and tell criminals to go jump in a lake.

People might not be familiar with their neighborhood watches, even though they are probably glad of their effects. Despite controversy in recent years, a 2008 analysis of the effectiveness rating of community watchfulness groups show a 16% drop in crime in areas with active memberships.

Neighborhood watch groups capitalize on a belief held by a plurality of scientists that human beings are wired to care about one another. Interfering in this natural concern for our homo sapient neighbors are the abundance of human beings living around us. To fully empathize with everyone we come into contact would result in total emotional overload, so we focus on those we interact with most.

Psychologists call this the “diffusion of responsibility,” or the “Genovese syndrome” (based on the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, a New Yorker who was stabbed twice in front of a full apartment complex). This might mean we’re not as close with our neighbors as we would like to be.

The first neighborhood watches actually grew out of the Genovese scandal and the National Night Out could be seen as the apotheosis of the community care trends of the 1970s when it was generally believed that urban centers would be overrun by crime. This belief has universally been proven to be incorrect—Seattle’s per capita crime rate had dropped by more than half since 1985.

Capitol HillSo go out. Tonight is a good night to start a relationship with your neighbors. Who knows? You might even find someone to water your plants when you’re away.

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