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SPECIAL REPORT: Putting Down Roots : The Times Poll : Many Keep Neighbors at a Distance


Fifty-one-year-old Mona Firmage may well epitomize the relationship that many North County residents have with their neighbors.

Back in 1983, she, her husband and their two children faced one of life's great traumas: their Oceanside home burned to the ground.

And, like out of some scene from Mayberry, the neighbors came to the rescue. "Everyone pitched in, trying to help us. They brought us food, clothing, even offered us their own homes for us to stay in," said Firmage. "Until then, we didn't even know them. But they were there when it counted. It was wonderful. I cried."

It was a great neighborhood, so the Firmage family rebuilt the home and stayed put. And today--eight years later--those new-kindled relationships have been nurtured and developed, right?

Well, not exactly.

"Most of us, we're working people," Firmage said. "By the time you get through with work, and the kids' school activities, and church activities, and Little League and band and housework, well, there's just not that much time left for neighbors."

Indeed, like Firmage, half of North County residents--53%--don't socialize with their neighbors. A quarter socialize occasionally; 12% frequently; 9% are closest friends, the Los Angeles Times Poll found.

Homeowners, however, tend to cultivate closer relationships with their immediate neighbors than do renters. Just over half of homeowners--54%--socialize with their neighbors, or consider them close friends, contrasted with 37% of the people who rent who socialize or become close friends with their neighbors.

Firmage may fall somewhere in between the two extremes of how North County residents relate to the people who live on the same block--or in the same complex.

Meat cutter Wayne Dale, 43, says he just doesn't have much time to bother with the people who live near the home he rents in Carlsbad.

"I assume they're nice people," he said. "But the people out here are a lot different than where I was raised, in Wisconsin. Back there, everybody knows everybody. If you drive down the street, someone sitting in their front yard drinking a beer will invite you to stop--and if you don't, you're a jerk.

"I've been out here (in San Diego County) since 1965, and I miss that. For everybody out here, it's a rat race. People out here don't seem to trust their neighbors. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own careers, they don't have time for anything else but to go to work, come home and go back to work the next day.

"I've got my own life to live."

Dale is among the 34% of North County's renters who say they don't know their neighbors at all--or only well enough to offer a passing "hello."

Kathy Killen lives in a home on a 1-acre lot in Escondido's rural northern side, and she not only hasn't gone out of her way to meet her neighbors, but she's tried to avoid them altogether.

"Nine times out of 10, you meet people (as neighbors) who just end up bugging you every night for one thing or another. It seems you can't be friends with neighbors without feeling your privacy is constantly being invaded."

Others, though, value their neighborhood-based friendships.

Ruby Thurston is a widow in her 80s who lived for 16 years in an Oceanside mobile home park before moving three years ago to Oceana, a senior citizens residential development in Oceanside. She counts her new neighbors as among her best friends--and has maintained her friendships with her former mobile home park neighbors.

In fact, she considers them all to be her family.

"I couldn't stand not getting along with my neighbors," she said. "I'd move. I couldn't imagine being any closer to my neighbors if they were my relatives."

She plays poker once a week with the mobile home park gang, and poker twice a week with the new gang, along with bridge tournaments and all the other social activities that are held at the local clubhouse.

Her closest neighbor, she says, helps her pay her bills and reconcile her checkbook.

"I have the best neighbors in the world," she boasts.

Lee Barker thinks she does, too. She and her husband, Gene, have lived in their Vista house for 15 years, and count two neighborhood couples as among their closest friends.

They have pool parties, go to movies together, eat out together, go to craft shows at the Del Mar Fairgrounds together, and go antique shopping in Riverside County together.

"You get (in neighborly friendliness) what you give," she said. "If you are a good neighbor, if you're friendly--if you're a good friend--that's how you get good friends among your neighbors.

"It takes time. You have to put out some effort. What are the rewards? A good, contented feeling of belonging, a feeling that this is my sphere of influence, my group.

"I can't imagine living without these people."

NEIGHBORS How well do you know your immediate neighbors?

5% Not at all

16% To say hello

32% Casual conversation

26% Socialize occasionally

12% Socialize frequently

9% Closest friends

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