Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Five Steps Toward Joining a Community

Christopher Bea is on his way to a new home in Colorado, and it occurred to me that one thing I know a lot about is how to make a new place home. A few months ago I tallied up all the moves I've made in my life, including summer-housing moves in college, and the total upset me too much to log it here.

It takes a while for any new city to feel like home, but these five steps speed the process. They apply not just to geographic places, but to professional and virtual communities as well. All the usual caveats apply: don't put yourself in danger, and don't put anyone else in danger either. But see if these work for you.

1. Subscribe to and read the local paper. "Local" is the key word. The New York Times doesn't count, although you should read the Times if you live in New York, with particular attention to your own Metro section. Subscribing to the paper gets you on a lot of other mailing lists, which may or may not be useful, and the physical copy of the paper often includes shopping and coupon sections that will help you stock your new home. But most important is that your new local paper is the best way to find out what your neighbors care about and what they do in their spare time. Pay special attention to the letters to the editor, the police blotter and the Calendar features.

2. Get a library card. First, it's free entertainment. Second, it's a hub for civic and community activities of all kinds. Third, it's a crossroads where all demographic groups meet: young, old, rich, poor. At the library, nobody looks out of place. If you're looking for a job, the library's often the best place to start; if nothing else, they have free internet.

3. Find a place to hang out. Everybody needs a safe "third place" that isn't home and isn't work. Find yours. It might be a bar, or a coffee shop, or a diner, or a gym. Sit at the bar or the lunch counter or the communal table. Don't be a creep, but be open to conversations with strangers and go often enough that people get used to seeing you there, and you get used to seeing the other regulars. If it's a bar, coffee shop or other place with service, tip well enough that the servers remember you by name and are glad to see you.

4. Greet your neighbors when you see them, and introduce yourself. Say "Hi, I've just moved in." Don't push; they don't need to hear your whole life story, and they're probably on their way somewhere. But you never know. Once they know you're not an axe murderer (unless you are an axe murderer), you can ask them things — where people go for brunch, maybe, or the best place for a haircut, or how early in the day the mail comes. People like to be recognized as authorities on things they know about.

5. Do something completely new, and possibly out-of-character (within reason). In your new town, nobody knows that you're someone who doesn't eat seafood or never dances in public. So do something you'd never do in the place you came from. Sign up for a yoga class, or ballroom dancing. Go to karaoke night and actually sing. Run a 5K. You can't embarrass yourself, because nobody knows who you are or who you're supposed to be. It's extraordinarily liberating. Take advantage of that, and find out who you are in this new place you're calling home.

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