the power of neighbors

| 23 Aug 2016 | 04:56

For the last three years, I have been a small-town newspaper editor in the middle of Manhattan.

That means people called me to complain that the cost of paper towels at the Duane Reade store downstairs from their apartment was 30 cents higher than the store down the block. It means that they sent me photographs of potholes that not only twisted their ankle, but their neighbor’s as well. It means that when the local gym canceled its gymnastics program, I heard not only from outraged parents, but from a clutch of distraught teenage girls.

The term of art for what we do here is hyper-local, and it’s a surprising slice of the media world. Who would have thought that in this age of instant communication, of Twitter and Snapchat and YouTube, that local newspapers, largely in print, would soldier on in one of the most intense media markets on earth?

Yet they do, and I am convinced that one of the reasons is because they help recreate the notion of a small town. It is a return to the notion promoted by the social activist Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” noted that the vitality of a place can be found on its sidewalks and stoops, and that the glue that holds a place together is the interplay among neighbors. In many parts of New York City, her argument, about the need for central gathering places and public squares, has been lost, blasted away by gentrification and a transient population. So we’ve been forced to find other approaches to re-villaging. Sometimes it’s through the internet, where we seek out and socialize with like-minded people, regardless of where they live. But it’s also in our own communities, where we find small, but significant, ways to picket fence our worlds.

An example from our pages: Just before Memorial Day last year, a gaggle of ducklings was born in a fountain outside the lobby of a building on the Upper East Side. People sent us photos of the chicks and their mother hen. The superintendent at the building made sure they were fed and protected. Residents put up a sign announcing their birth.

Then one day they disappeared. People were distraught. These hard-core city people, many of whom wouldn’t look you in the eye if you sat next to them on the subway, called to beg for our help in tracking down the ducklings. They feared local dogs, or Central Park foxes, or teenage pranksters.

In fact, it turned out to be none of the above; an animal-rescue group, which had been approached by the residents to find a home for the ducks, carted them off to Long Island, and the word never filtered back to the people who had appointed themselves the keepers of the East Side ducks.

That day, on that corner of Manhattan, nothing in The Times or Post or Daily News was as important to those people as the story of the missing ducks. The fact that we were interested told these readers that we understood why this story mattered: in a city so devoid of nature, finding such a pure, defenseless example of it steps from your front door meant something.

In our community newspapers, we report on both the ugly and the beautiful sides of the return to small-town Manhattan. There is, for instance, the increasingly common effort by landlords to create an urban universe that is bucolic and self-contained, regardless of what they have to do to get there. Faced with pressure from Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase the affordable-housing stock in a cripplingly expensive city, developers are now pressured to add lower-cost units to their new apartment buildings. But some of them fear that the people who will occupy the affordable apartments in a luxury tower don’t fit in the kind of small town that the rest of the tenants are hoping to create for themselves. So developers, first on the Upper West Side and now throughout the city, built separate entrances for people who aren’t paying full price.

It is the Manhattan version of the gated community, except here it’s vertical instead of sprawling. But the intention is the same: to create, artificially, a community we craft ourselves, welcoming the people we want while keeping everybody else out. Liberal Manhattanites, who make fun of people living in golf courses on private country clubs in the suburbs, have essentially created that very lifestyle, a half mile from the Metropolitan Opera.

This, then, is one consequence of America’s retreat into a small-town cocoon, of a piece with shutting off our borders, folding in on ourselves and turning away from the rest of the world. It is the dark and ominous side of a shift driven by fear and the unknown. But it isn’t always ominous.

A couple of months ago, an irate mom of two kids called our newspapers hoping we could help her find the family dog. The dad, who never liked the pooch, took it upon himself to go on Craigslist and find a new owner. Without telling anyone else in the family, he met up with someone in a park on the Upper West Side and gave the dog away. Once his wife and kids discovered what he had done, they papered the neighborhood with posters seeking the dog’s return, then called to enlist us in the search.

We sent our reporter to interview the mom, who was furious with the husband and spoke darkly of divorce. But mainly she just wanted the dog back. She eventually found him. While I don’t know whether the father ever made his peace with the dog, or the husband with the wife, I do know that our readers who followed this little urban drama were drawn together in a very real way.

One final story: Because our newspapers have been around for decades — a couple of them, nearly half a century — we often get calls from people wanting to search back issues for whatever reason. We oblige if at all possible.

One day, I got a call from someone wanting to find out if we had run a police blotter item nine years ago about a teenager who had fallen out of a fifth-floor apartment in Chelsea. I don’t know if we did, I told the caller, but I’ll look. I asked, “Why are you interested?”

“Because,” he said, “I’m the guy who fell.”

Over the next three months, I worked with that guy, who turns out to be an actor named Ryan Casey, to recreate the events of that night in 2006 when he fell — or, he now suspects, was pushed — out of the window. And here’s where his story illustrates not just our interest in a minor police matter, but in the coming together of the small town of Chelsea: neighbors began to get interested, as he went door to door, and apartment to apartment, asking people if they remembered him or that night. Seeing our story, a state assembly member helped cut through the bureaucracy of the police department to get answers.

For years, Casey had lived with a secret shame: he had been convinced that his accident in 2006, which left him badly injured and hospitalized for months, was his fault. He was embarrassed to have put himself in such a dangerous situation.

But now, thanks to the paper’s interest and the compassion of the community, he was rethinking that shame. Maybe he did nothing wrong, after all, or at least maybe someone else was as complicit in his injury. Maybe he shouldn’t spend his life feeling humiliated about it after all.

This story, of someone going home with a stranger, and either jumping or getting tossed out of an apartment window, is not your typical small-town yarn. But the response to it is, showing the contours of the picket fencing of New York City.

After three years as the editor of these newspapers, I’ll soon be stepping down. Next month, I take over as editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’ll study my profession from a different perch.

But I know I’ll miss these small towns, the boundaries visible only to their neighbors, hidden inside the biggest city in America.