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Where Have All The Neighbors Gone?

BACKGROUND: The tragedy that spurred Peter Lovenheim to write In the Neighborhood happened on sedate Sandringham Road in suburban Rochester, N.Y., on Feb. 29, 2000.

Robert Wills, 43, an orthopedic specialist, shot his wife, Renan Beckman Wills, 45, a family physician, and then killed himself in their red-brick Tudor home at 52 Sandringham.

Their two children, Emily, then 13, and Peter, 12, were home at the time. They fled down the driveway, screaming into the night.

"A whole family disappeared from the street, and the effect on the neighborhood seemed quite slight," says Lovenheim, who lived down the street. "How could that be? I knew them only casually. Nobody knew them well. That seemed odd to me that a whole family could be here and only be acquaintances."

Orhan Beckman, Renan Wills' younger brother, summed up today's neighborhoods for Lovenheim's book:

"That the marital relationship could fester and steer so far off course in this picture-perfect setting without anyone taking notice, until the results are so obvious that you can't not react, is a sad statement on the way we live today."

The two children were taken in by Renan Wills' parents.


BRIGHTON, N.Y. - It's almost midnight, and the only light on Sandringham Road comes from the streetlight that shines through an upstairs bedroom window at Peter Lovenheim's house.

His daughter Sarah has graduated from college and moved on to a job in Washington, D.C. The walls of her bedroom are now bare. So is the closet and her desk by the window. The light from the street makes the room seem even more spare.

Lovenheim has invited a guest to sleep over in his daughter's old bedroom to see what it's like to "be" at his house, to observe his daily routine, to eat Sunday breakfast at his kitchen table. (Cereal with blueberries and soy milk served up with The New York Times. Sorry, no coffee.)

He thinks it's the best way to get to know a family well. It works with neighbors, too. He knows this firsthand.

Lovenheim, 56, a divorced father of three who grew up on the street and returned 15 years ago to live in his childhood home, often wondered who his neighbors were and what their lives were like. He also wondered why he knew so few of them. The question became more pressing after a murder-suicide rocked the neighborhood in 2000. How could that happen here, he asked?

So Lovenheim, a lawyer, author (Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf) and freelance writer, set out to find out who lived in this wealthy enclave in suburban Rochester, N.Y., where many of the homes are mansions, where all the lawns are manicured, where the trees are mature and the BMWs are kept in the garage, not the driveway.

His new book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time (Perigee, 238 pp., $23.95), out Tuesday, tells what Lovenheim found.

And yes, as the subtitle suggests, he asked his neighbors if he could sleep over to get a better sense of what their lives were like.

(The idea intrigued actress Julia Roberts so much that her film production company has acquired the rights.)

In the process, Lovenheim befriended his neighbors' dogs, read their kitchen calendars, learned who loved Oriental rugs and who had cocktails at 3.

He not only stayed over but spent a routine day with them, even accompanying some of them to work.

Strange? Some of his neighbors certainly thought so.

One neighbor, a stockbroker, told Lovenheim that he was "pathologically private," poking his cellphone at Lovenheim's chest. "I wouldn't ever want to see anything in print about me, my family or my business," he said. Lovenheim did not sleep at his house, and yet the man agreed to have lunch with him.

Distilling the experience

Lovenheim says about half the 35 families on the street agreed to cooperate on his project, and four representative sleepover families are featured in the book. So starting in 2003, he packed his overnight bag and headed out the door, his then-teenage daughter, Valerie, yelling out: "Dad, you're crazy!"

"I tried to figure out a way to break through the barriers. I could interview them, but that wasn't going to get me as deep as I wanted to go," says Lovenheim, who lives with his son, Ben, an affable 16-year-old and local table tennis champ. "So I thought of my childhood sleepovers, where your friend's mom became a real person making breakfast."

He also walked with the mailman and rode with the newspaper deliveryman to hear what they thought about his neighborhood. (More on that later.)

What Lovenheim discovered in his years of research was that his street was not so different from most American neighborhoods today.

"My story isn't about this particular street," he says, strolling down Sandringham on a recent Saturday afternoon. "It's illustrative of what's happening on a larger scale. The isolation. I could have written this book about most anywhere in America."

Bill Fricke, a pathologist who lives across from the murder-suicide house (on sale again for $700,000), confessed to Lovenheim that "we live too much as strangers to each other," so he and his wife, Susan, a pediatrician and authority on autism, welcomed Lovenheim in.

"We were comfortable with Peter," says Fricke, 60, a father of two. "We didn't feel like we were on display."

The Frickes have lived in the neighborhood for 14 years and feel at home here, although they call what happened across the street "horrifying." Emily, daughter of the murder-suicide couple, babysat for the Frickes a week before the tragedy.

The Frickes acknowledge a certain reserve on the street. "You see people walking by, but you don't have a clue who they are," Fricke says.

"There isn't a lot of over-the-back-fence chitchat here."

Not that some neighbors don't try to connect. There is an annual neighborhood association picnic, an event where Susan Fricke says you can see "lots of boat shoes."

You also see more young families with children at the annual event. A Spider-Man bike could be found lying on the sidewalk on a recent weekend, for instance.

'There are no neighbors here'

Lou Guzzetta, a no-nonsense octogenarian, raised six kids on Sandringham. He moved to the street in 1950 and never left. He died in his sleep in 2008, just as he was becoming good friends with Lovenheim.

An old-fashioned surgeon who spent most of his life at the hospital, he led a busy life until he became "unanchored" when he retired and his wife died.

"There are no neighbors here," he once told Lovenheim, who chose Guzzetta's house for his first sleepover. (He insisted his guest wear a plaid nightshirt, which Lovenheim has kept as a souvenir.)

Guzzetta enjoyed his afternoon gin, loved his schnauzer, Heidi, and had a support group at the local Y, yet was terribly lonely.

Jamie Columbus, a local real-estate agent and single mother of two, welcomed Lovenheim in, too. (Lovenheim ended up not sleeping over. Columbus was in the midst of a divorce.)

An artist, she's interested in "tribal neighborhoods" built around a central space. She says the problem with Sandringham is that people are contained within their own house.

"You don't even see the people closest around you. . . . It's more common here to have property disputes than to deliver a Bundt cake," says Columbus, who offered recent weekend guests tea and cookies. "We just don't have the old-fashioned conversations with our neighbors. There are strong privacy lines here."

But Columbus says she's comfortable in the neighborhood, where she grew up, "because I reach out. If I waited for people, I'd being waiting a long time. You have to be a little bit bold, confident, to do that."

Radiologist Patti DiNitto lived farther down the hill. Also a single mother of two, she was battling breast cancer when Lovenheim approached her. They, too, became friends. DiNitto would later tell Lovenheim that she had lived on the street for five years and hadn't met a single person. Lovenheim sat with her as she lay dying on a hospital bed in her dining room.

Lovenheim also interviewed those he saw daily on the street, including a woman he called "The Walker." She had passed his house every day since the late '50s, all through his childhood and later when he returned to the neighborhood.

Grace Field, who died last year at 94, told him that she had even once fallen on the street and had to crawl to the curb. No one came to her aid. She had met virtually no one on the street in all her decades of daily walks.

"Grace had, in effect, invited all of us to be her neighbor, but none of us had," Lovenheim says.

Ralph Pascale, the neighborhood mailman, also shared a telling anecdote with Lovenheim on the day they walked the route together.

"More than 90 percent of the time, customers would rather give misdirected mail back to me than walking it over to the person next door. . . . They don't want to get involved with their neighbors."

Which isn't so true anymore. Thanks to Lovenheim, Guzzetta and DiNitto became friends; he drove her to doctors' appointments before she died in 2005.

Does Lovenheim think he has made a difference?

"It's kind of hard for me to say, but yes, I've been able to put some people together," he says. "That worked. I'm happy about that."

He can also stroll Sandringham now and pretty much know what's happening at his neighbors' homes.

Just by what lights are on.

3 Responses »

  1. As the owner of 52 Sandringham and trying to sell our home your book upsets me. That my beautiful home can only be rememebered for the tragedy. That your story is based around the tragedy. That people still feel my home is a scarey place. How about going back to the years when the Lederman family lived there ,wonderful memories they had in their home. We also rented the house for 18months before we moved in to a family with two boys. they loved the house. What about the last ten years when my husband myself and my sons lived there. We made that house a home. We loved that house. Its the people that are in the house that makes it a home.

  2. Chris, it's not about the house. I can understand how you would be concerned about the house being associated with the tragedy, but this was just the anchor story for Lovenheim's book. When I heard about the book, I was telling my neighbor about it. After having lived in my house for over 33 years, my recollections of previous owners in her house definitely interested her. However, we never associated the house with those families, or the odd or delightful things that took place beforehand. The house will carry a history of both good and bad, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, but it's the people that create the stories, not the house. When you lived at 52 Sandringham, did you ever meet Peter Lovenheim and his family? Because, from what I understand he--and his parents--were your neighbor for many years. That's what his book is all about--the people, not the houses.

  3. I'm from Europe, another world, and came to live in the US 3 years ago. The isolation and loneliness of the subdivision and the street became almost intolerable. I blame the automatic garage doors: we only see our neighbors' cars coming in and out, then the doors come down, hiding their occupants and their secrets. A car stopped by when I was doing some work in the front yard. I asked the woman if she nearby and she said: "I'm your next door neighbor". That's how much we know and recognize them! She comes out in her yard about once every 2 years. We did ask them a few times round for a drink or coffee, we never received even a reply. Once a year we simply say 'hi' to each other over the fence! Always polite and friendly, but we get the feeling that they want to keep themselves to themselves. Too much into themselves.
    Haven't read the book yet, but so much look forward to it. I might suggest it to my book club. Yes, I did start a book club at our local library, just so that I can get to meet people! Church is another venue. It's like hitting a glass ceiling every time.