Transforming tragedy into life lessons

One author’s story of how a neighbor's misfortune opened doors in his community

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Photo by A. Sue Weisler

Peter Lovenheim relaxes in his home in Brighton where he chronicled his experiences connecting with his neighbors. The resulting book, In The Neighborhood, is now being made into a feature film by Julia Roberts.

Several years ago a tragedy occurred in Peter Lovenheim’s neighborhood that caused the author and adjunct professor of English to reevaluate his relationships with his neighbors and critically examine the role community played in his life. 

“A murder-suicide happened near my house and in the aftermath everyone was asking about the people involved, what could have been done to prevent it and how something like this could happen in a relatively stable, middle class neighborhood,” Lovenheim says. “I realized that I knew very little if anything about the families that lived on my street and that our neighborhood as whole was fractured and disconnected.”

In response, he set out to learn more about his neighbors and develop a closer relationship using a time-honored childhood past time, the sleepover. While he did get some puzzled looks, Lovenheim ultimately slept over at close to a half-dozen houses, writing about his experiences and developing strong friendships and connections with many people who he had not known at all before. In addition, neighbors developed closer ties, including coming together to help a woman on the street who was battling cancer, taking turns driving her to doctors’ appointments and watching her children.

“Before my first sleepover, my daughter exclaimed ‘Dad you’re crazy!’ an opinion I am sure was shared by a number of other people in the neighborhood,” notes Lovenheim. “But through this experience I think our street as a whole began to break down the barriers we had all created and become a real community.

“Our political leaders speak of crossing party lines to achieve greater unity. Maybe we should all cross the invisible lines between our homes and achieve greater unity in the places we live. Probably we don’t need to sleep over; all it might take is to make a phone call, send a note, or ring a bell.”

Lovenhiem’s experiences led to a New York Times op-ed piece, and the book In the Neighborhood to be published in April by the Penguin Group. The book has also been optioned by Julia Roberts’ production company, Red Om Films, and is slated to be made into a feature film.

“I read the op-ed piece and it really stirred some emotions, to the point I began making efforts to learn more about my own neighbors,” says Phillip Rose, an executive at Red Om Films who is set to co-produce the film with Roberts. “This story reminds me of a Frank Capra film with its uplifting message and compelling characters.”

The optioning of the film rights earned major notice in the entertainment press and is one of several movies Red Om has in various stages of production. Rose said the project is currently in development as the company seeks to transform the book into a workable screenplay. 

“It is incredibly gratifying that so many people have connected with this story,” adds Lovenheim. “Connecting with people is one of the key goals of a writer, something I try to instill in my students at RIT. It is my hope this book and possible film will touch people in the same way the experience changed my life.”

Lovenheim’s previous book, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation, was published in 2003 by Random House and featured in the New York Times Book Review.