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Who Gets to Decide What "Being Neighborly" Means?
When Facebook mom groups go too far.
I have a complicated relationship with Facebook momgroups. It is very useful to be able to buy and sell random kid stuff, or ask what graphic novels everyone's eight-year-olds are reading, or talk to people whose kids have gone through the same specific, confusing situation your kid is experiencing. But they can also be a site of the deepest, darkest white woman privilege, and can sometimes feel like dangerous places to navigate if you have any kind of marginalized identity.
The group that is local to my neighborhood is mostly fine, and when it's not, I can mostly ignore it. (I've trained myself to not be triggered by posts about "ninja birthday parties," which has really helped.) But this week a post and comment thread played out that was full of unexamined assumptions and shadowy subtext, and was a glimpse into the small ways that those with privilege can unthinkingly perpetrate harm in their local communities.
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The post was about parking. Specifically, it was about the private parking lot of a convenience store, located on a block of very "gentrified Denver" retail: a bike shop with a coffee bar inside it, a brewery with a niche focus, a bagel shop with gluten-free and vegan options, you get it. After recently adding a little cafe with Vietnamese food inside the convenience store, the owners had started towing the cars of people who parked in their lot without coming into their store.
The woman posting about it said she had seen multiple people "in tears" in the lot, and when she went into the store to talk to the owners, she found them "belligerent" and "not very kind" after she told them that the towing was disruptive. She framed the post as a helpful warning, but also mentioned that she would not be ordering from the store's new cafe because "I don't want to support a business that does this to its neighbors" and ended by conceding that what they are doing is legal, but "I just wish we could be a little kinder to each other in our community."
The owners of the store are a couple who immigrated from Vietnam, and parents of a small child. In 2022, their store was burglarized three times, once with devastating property damage. According to their shop's Facebook page, it took 2 ½ years for the city to approve their permit to build out a kitchen. That is on top of the work of running a convenience store day after day, a grind I became familiar with when I worked with corner store operators in New Orleans. Most worked six or seven days a week, and 10 to 12 hours a day. Everyone I knew had been robbed at gunpoint at least once; some stores experienced it regularly. It is not a job you take on because it is easy, or because you want to make a lot of money, but it is a job you can do without needing to speak English perfectly or have a college degree. That is one reason why convenience stores in the US are often owned and operated by people who have immigrated here.
So yeah, it felt like fire was coming out of my ears when I read this post, and the subsequent comments about how the towing was "predatory" and the store owners could "stand to be more neighborly." At the same time, a couple people openly admitted to frequently parking in the lot so they could run into the bagel place. Several said it wasn't fair to enforce the parking rules without first putting up a sign letting people know the parking rules were going to be enforced.
I want to examine some of the assumptions and subtexts of this post and its comments. What I am hearing is:
It's okay if we break the rules.
If they are going to start enforcing the rule we are breaking, we need a warning or some other special treatment before being punished. This is an unspoken rule.
They must follow the unspoken rules we have created.
When they break our unspoken rules, it is worse than when we break actual rules because they are not being neighborly.
If they punish us, they also must be kind to us when we complain. This is an unspoken rule.
If they are not kind when we complain about being punished for an actual rule we broke, they are wrong. Because they are not being neighborly.
The tunnel vision was so deep, people on this post could not see that in all their hand-wringing over neighborliness, they were being horrible neighbors. In this gentrified area, the homogeneity of the people in this group brought no other perspective beyond their own.So many houses in Denver sport an "In This House We Believe" sign in the front yard. It's easy to believe when the lines are so cleanly drawn, you can see them from far away: children separated from their parents at the border, an elderly Asian man pushed to the sidewalk, a knock on the wrong door bringing death.
But when the issue is so close to home that the lines are blurred and we’re not quite sure what side we’re on, it's not so easy. When we can no longer conveniently park next to the bagel shop. When more affordable housing means building on green space we think should be a public park. When choosing "the best" for our kids ends up making things worse for kids who don't have that same choice.
What unspoken rules are we enforcing in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and other spaces that may not be shared by people who are different from us (culturally, linguistically, neurologically, etc.)? Who gets to decide what makes a good neighbor?
If you are in Denver and want to visit the store or order from its new cafe, here's their Facebook page. I’m going to give them an extra Yelp star
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I am saying "mom" because these groups are almost entirely populated by cis-gender women with children, but there are occasionally nonbinary or transgender parents. The labor these groups help facilitate – finding a preschool in the neighborhood, selling children's old snow gear, borrowing a travel car seat, finding a kid's haircut place in the neighborhood, and on and endlessly on – is often taken on by women in heterosexual couples, hence the lack of equivalent "dad" groups.
If you're wondering, I did post a comment pointing out the possible perspective of the store owners, in a KIND and NEIGHBORLY way. The original poster semi-apologized, but a lot of the attention was on the one person who called the place "rat-infested," which honestly was less problematic to me because it was so obviously offensive. It's the less visible subtext that I think is more insidious.
In ye olde heyday of Yelp, reviewers would regularly (and ridiculously) take away a star or two from restaurants if the parking wasn’t convenient. Was this only an L.A. thing?