Here’s how Austinites in three different parts of the city have built relationships with the folks next door
by Robyn Ross
Photographs by Danielle Chloe
Good neighbors will water your plants while you’re on vacation. Great neighbors are people you look forward to seeing when you get back.
Reserved: Table For Seven
The knock reverberated through the house, and Chrissy Kleberg went to answer it with squirmy five-month-old Amelia in one arm. When she opened the door, Joe Holm and Mike Hondorp, her next-door neighbors, stood on the stoop, grinning. Hondorp held out a drink that looked suspiciously like a cocktail. Holm proffered a Mediterranean salad and some of his famous cornbread. Kleberg smiled with relief. “Come on in, guys,” she said. Her husband, Jay, was out of town on business for two and a half months, and her neighbors’ instincts couldn’t have been better.
It was the first of many times during Jay’s absence that Holm and Hondorp showed up, ready to provide dinner and hold the baby so Chrissy could have a moment to herself. One of the two men checked in with Chrissy three times a week, making sure she and daughters Sophia, Katherine and Amelia were all right. Managing a big family, several pets and a house was easier with help a few steps away. “It’s nice to know that somebody next door has your back,” she says.
In the roughly five years they’ve lived next door to one another on a leafy street in Travis Heights, the neighbors have helped each other in practical matters: bringing in packages from the porch. Lending an egg or sugar for baking, or a ladder for household repairs. The Klebergs have an extensive costume closet, including several wigs, and Jay threw a yacht-rock–themed 40th birthday party last year. “Joe was out of town, so I was by myself getting ready,” Hondorp says. “I asked, ‘Hey, do you guys have a captain’s hat and a life jacket?’ Chrissy’s like, ‘Yep, come on over.’”
The families socialize together regularly: in March, the whole crew strolled South Congress Avenue in the annual Easter pet parade organized by Jo’s Coffee (Amelia was wearing a bunny costume, and Holm and Hondorp’s dogs sported bunny ears). The adults attend fundraising parties and South by Southwest events together. When the Klebergs’ oldest daughter, Sophia, had a piano recital at home, she invited Holm and Hondorp, who showed up with flowers. (She also writes them letters from camp every summer.) Holm and Hondorp tied the knot in October 2016, and they invited the Klebergs. “It was the most genuinely romantic, heartfelt wedding that I’d ever been to,” Jay says.
Yet some of the neighbors’ best interactions have been impromptu dinners and downtime at a table Holm brought over to the Klebergs’ yard. Growing up, Holm spent spare moments at a picnic table his neighbors had set in their front yard. We need one of those, he realized. Now the table is the default gathering place for after-work beverages, kids’ projects, or pizza on a spring evening.
If Holm and Hondorp have children one day, Hondorp says, they’ll use the Klebergs as a model. “The kids are so involved and free to do what they want to do,” he says. “They can play in the front yard, and [their parents] aren’t freaking out about it. I did that as a kid — we spent our whole lives outside. It’s fun to be able to do that as adults.”
Cultivating A Farm and A Community
It’s dinnertime on the urban farm, and Jon Hallmark carries a bucket of feed for the backyard goats: Carolina, Turkey, and Turkey’s two-month-old baby, Little Richard. Chickens dart between his legs and scamper past his wife, Hannah, and next-door neighbor Tonya Fairley. “Turkey ate a peach!” Hannah cries, as Fairley laughs at Little Richard, who’s nibbling her boot. “Stop eating from the peach tree!” Hannah gives Turkey a forceful pat, sending her away from the garden and back to her own pen.
When Hallmark bought his house on Sanchez Street in East Austin 10 years ago, it needed a lot of work. He set to remodeling it on evenings and weekends, the same hours Tonya’s husband, Carl, would spend on his front porch or back patio. Carl and Tonya had lived on Sanchez Street for a decade — long enough to see gang activity and crime decrease and old neighbors move away. Carl started to mosey over to the chain-link fence that separated his and Hallmark’s backyards. Come over and have a beer, he’d offer, and Hallmark, then single, would accept. “I liked him right off the bat, because I knew he was going to be an extremely good neighbor,” Carl says. “He’s one of the most kindhearted persons I know.”
Those evening beers on the patio gave Hallmark a chance to notice an overgrown, poison-ivy-covered section of the Fairleys’ backyard. In his second year on Sanchez, Hallmark offered to clean up the jungle if he could put a garden there — and a gate between the backyards. Sure, the Fairleys said. Hallmark got to work, installing the gate and later, each time with the Fairleys’ blessing, adding chickens, goats, pigs, bees, and, for a time, rabbits, to the back end of both deep lots. Other neighbors visited the farm, and Hallmark added more gates between yards, until half the block was connected. “It’s kind of a backyard thoroughfare,” Hallmark explains.
Then came “The Walking Dead.” Hallmark was a fan of the postapocalyptic television show, but he didn’t have cable. Midway through season two, he asked Carl if he could come over and use the extra TV the Fairleys kept on their patio. On that chilly night, Hallmark was bundled up on a lawn chair, absorbed in the action, when Carl opened his back door and asked what he was watching. “‘The Walking Dead,’” Hallmark answered. Fairley let out a hoot. “Get in here,” he said. “That’s what I’m watching.” Hallmark and the Fairleys started convening every Sunday night to eat dinner and watch the show, a tradition that has continued for six seasons. “That was a huge jump in our relationship,” Hallmark remembers.
The Hallmarks married two years ago, and the Fairleys attended their wedding. Now the patio gatherings include the two couples, along with the other members of the Fairleys’ household: their two daughters, younger son, and five-year-old granddaughter. It’s not uncommon for other neighbors to drop by, see the group socializing around the fire pit, and invite themselves over. The street has organized events — barbecues, potlucks, a crawfish boil — but it’s the impromptu gatherings, especially the ones that involve the karaoke machine, that everyone remembers.
Like many parts of the East Side, Sanchez Street is changing. Older homes have been demolished and replaced with larger houses. What was once a primarily African-American street has become more ethnically diverse. But near the Hallmarks and Fairleys, at least, the sense of community is still strong. The key is to be intentional about getting to know one another, they say.
As the newcomer, Hallmark made meeting his neighbors a priority. “In my mind, that was part of being a homeowner,” he says. “You treated your neighbors with respect and said hi to them and made relationships with them.”
It’s pretty simple to get started, Carl Fairley says. “Always speak. It doesn’t hurt anything to speak to anyone. Just be kind.”
Our Neighborhood is the Whole Building
When Mona Morgan and her husband, Jim, moved into their Seaholm Residences condo two years ago, her floor was buzzing with excitement. Construction delays on the downtown high-rise had pushed back everyone’s move-in date, but the moment had finally arrived. Between deliveries from their movers, Morgan’s neighbors propped their doors open, stuck their heads into one another’s condos, and chatted eagerly.
From those early conversations, Morgan, who’s in her 60s, struck up a friendship with two 30-something couples on her floor who took to calling her “Mona Mom.” “We were kind of like the Mom and Dad on the hall,” Morgan says of herself and her husband. They invited their neighbors over for wine nights and an Academy Awards party and acted as a sounding board for the couples. The younger residents even occasionally asked, Hey, Mona Mom, do you have Tylenol? It was just like asking a neighbor for a cup of sugar in days gone by, Morgan says. “But now you can text.”
These days she’s helping other residents form close relationships through the Seaholm social committee. “High-rise living is a big change from the neighborhood,” Morgan says. With more than 270 units on 20 residential floors, the tower packs hundreds of people into a building with a footprint smaller than a city block. Instead of meeting neighbors across the fence or on leisurely walks, Seaholm residents run into their neighbors in the hallway or the lobby.
“Our neighborhood is the whole building,” says DeEtte Brownlee, a Seaholm resident who handles the social committee’s budget. “Our neighbors are all around us, all the time.” That close proximity — at the mailbox, or in the elevator — offers chances to meet people every day. Brownlee has met good friends during evening strolls in the courtyard with her golden retriever and goldendoodle. “We have a little pack, and we know each other’s names and all the dogs’ names. Over time, we’ve built these relationships through the dogs.”
But Morgan, Brownlee, and other members of the social committee don’t want to leave those relationships to chance. So they organize monthly ladies’ happy hours and parties for Independence Day and Christmas. Other women have formed a book club, and a group has begun playing dominoes on the building’s 10th-floor pool deck. Members sustain their competitive spirits with wine and snacks from the Trader Joe’s next door. “We’re still learning how to play it correctly, but it’s quickly turning into the kind of game where everyone talks smack to each other,” says Nancy Germond, a regular player. The social committee even held a special event to celebrate the end of the 2 a.m. concrete pours for a nearby condo building — and an end to the nights of interrupted sleep. The drink served for the occasion? The “cement mixer.”
“Just by being in the building, I’ve met so many people,” Brownlee says. “I think if I’d lived in a single-family home, it would have taken me a lot longer to get to know people.”
Morgan agrees. “We just decided to get involved and make Seaholm our home and make it as social as we could. And the best part is that we don’t need a coat or an umbrella, or have to deal with traffic, to go see our neighbors.”
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS: A HOW-TO
• Hang out in the front yard. Add a bench or table and invite the neighbors to meet you there for dinner.
• Be willing to ask for help and to borrow things from one another.
• Organize a structured social event — a potluck or a happy hour.
• Consider using a chain-link fence instead of a privacy fence in the backyard.
• If you live in a high-rise, defy the rule of elevator silence. Use that time to get to know the people you’re riding with.
• Offer to carpool to the grocery store. If there are tasks you and your neighbors are going to do anyway, do them together.
• If you regularly chat with people in the neighborhood park, or while you’re walking your dog, take the relationship one step further with a low-key invitation: “Hey, Friday evening we’ll be out in our front yard. Feel free to come on by.”
• Be intentional about knowing your neighbors. On close-knit blocks (or floors), residents can always point to a person who took the initiative to get people together. Be that person.