Oakland Mills tries to connect neighbors Residents get acquainted by trading skills, goods

November 05, 1996|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Erin Peacock, Oakland Mills' village manager, is worried that her neighbors don't know one another -- and that crime is increasing as a result -- so she is trying to duplicate a program that would get them exchanging their skills and goods.

In a "neighborhood exchange" like the one in operation in Takoma Park, neighbors trade their talents, time and commodities for those of their neighbors. In the process, say some residents of the Montgomery County suburb, they have found ways to get to know each other.

Last month, Peacock invited Olaf Egeberg, who started the Takoma Park program, to share his ideas at the Oakland Mills village board meeting. At the next meeting, on Nov. 12, the board will consider starting a local exchange.

Peacock hopes that if it is started here, the Oakland Mills exchange will help alleviate what she sees as a growing lack of connection -- even alienation -- among neighbors.

"When I moved to Columbia in 1972, it was smaller, and you knew your neighbors," Peacock said. "It was a different way of living.

"Now we have a crime problem; people feel less safe than they are," she said. "I really think if we just get to know who our neighbors are, we'll feel much more comfortable. It would change so much."

In Takoma Park, 317 families -- out of 450 in the geographic area encompassed by the Philadelphia-Eastern Neighborhood, or PEN, exchange -- are involved in the bartering, Egeberg said. Philadelphia and Eastern avenues mark the northern and southern borders of the exchange area, which Egeberg emphasizes must be small to work best.

"Life was really becoming more alienating," said Egeberg, a biochemist by training. "We need to break down the lack of trust in society, which seems to have tended toward a more cold and less supportive future. Once you establish trust -- once we just get to know the people we live near -- many, many good things can happen."

So, four years ago, soon after he moved to Takoma Park, Egeberg sent a letter to all his neighbors within a quarter-mile radius. Included was a section where they could jot down skills, items and resources they could offer for trade. About a week later, he went door-to-door in his neighborhood to follow up.

"Only one person's door I knocked on didn't want to be bothered," Egeberg said.

The bartering began with neighbors exchanging items such as old furniture or garden tools for services such as child care or house-sitting.

One woman helped a neighbor create her resume and received a few carwashes and lawn mowings in exchange. A man offered his math tutoring skills for a neighbor's home-cooked pastries; a bonus of their exchange came when the man and woman became friends and eventually married, Egeberg said.

The exchanges multiplied, and neighbors got to know one another.

As a result, the exchange has spawned other activities, including seasonal dances, a farm-neighborhood trade, nightly walking groups that double as safety patrols and weekly meal swaps for families looking to cut down on cooking time.

The activities raise enough money to cover the exchange's relatively small administrative costs, Egeberg said.

The exchange also has a monthly newsletter, an e-mail network, a welcome committee for newcomers and a group that offers assistance to elderly residents. And there are regular talent shows and even neighborhood-generated consumer reports with tips and warnings on neighborhood shops, restaurants and merchants.

Even if residents have no skills or resources to offer -- which, Egeberg said, has never happened -- nearly everyone can offer the time to walk a dog, drive a neighbor to an appointment or be an exercise partner.

"Some things don't even need a trade," said Judith Grace, Egeberg's partner, who worked for 37 years in offices and now relishes her work cleaning and repairing houses in exchange for other commodities. "Some are simply excuses for people to get together."

Egeberg and Grace say they literally live by the exchange: They trade their work for everything they need.

The two trade house cleaning and yard care for rent, swap home-improvement projects for cash and barter shares, the exchange's "monetary unit," which can be used in lieu of a straight trade but cannot be purchased with cash. (When the shares were introduced two years ago, each resident was given three shares.)

In Oakland Mills village, Peacock has printed several announcements in weekly newsletters and sent out letters about the program.

"So far, the response has been less than overwhelming," Peacock said. "But we have such a rich diversity of folks in Columbia, and some people don't have a lot of money and could really benefit from an exchange.

"The community feeling is leaving, and I want to help re-establish a sense of belonging," she said. "That's what this is all about."

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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