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Byline: Don Robinson For The Register-Guard

Laura Zuke is fighting against the kind of social deterioration portrayed in "Bowling Alone."

Zuke has not read the best-selling book (2000) by Harvard government professor Robert Putnam. But she's aware of generally declining social connections. And she has taken steps, without formal structure or organizational ties, to combat that malady in her own neighborhood.

She lives on Kelly Boulevard in west Springfield, at the base of Kelly Butte. She has lived there in a 1,300-square-foot bungalow for five years, and before that was in Eugene for five years. She started looking in Springfield "because it was cheaper" and found the house she eventually bought just as it was being moved from a site on Centennial Boulevard.

Zuke, 44, is a long way from her original home and career.

She grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where her father worked in a federal job as a mechanical engineer. Laura liked math and science in high school and wound up earning a degree in civil engineering from the nearby University of Maryland.

She followed a boyfriend to Boston where he pursued a doctorate in civil engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as a civil engineer. Eventually, he went on to join the faculty at Maryland and she stuck with engineering in Boston - until the stress got to her and she decided to make major changes.

She intended to "make a big loop around the country" and then decide where to live. But a Utah gas station owner advised her against Seattle, a tentative target, and urged her to check out Eugene. Which she did, and found that "something really resonated for me."

Within two months of passing through, she had returned to settle here. She purposely did not seek to re-establish her engineering career and instead went to something of the other extreme.

"I loved the analytical, logical part of my (Boston) job," she recalled. "I did a lot of computer programming and database work.?... But when I first moved here I think I shifted completely from the analytical to the artistic.

"I joined the Peace Choir, I contra-danced, I got into theater, I kind of went off totally into that area."

Today, she said, "The things I do for money are house-sitting and tutoring." She tutors students from "fifth grade through college" in "math, algebra, geometry, and more and more in geometry II." So, "I feel like there's some balance of art and science."

Bucking the trend

The Putnam book identifies a serious decline in what one reviewer called "face-to-face sociability: Trend data show that fewer Americans invite friends over for dinner or for the evening, visit their neighbors, go on picnics, play cards, or participate in a variety of other social activities."

The attention-grabbing title comes from Putnam's discovery that even though bowling was increasing, bowling leagues were shrinking. Thus, more Americans were "bowling alone."

Zuke rarely goes bowling, so the metaphor has no literal meaning for her. But she is no couch potato. She loves to inline skate and ride her bike, taking advantage of her proximity to the riverside bike path. And she walks a lot.

"I really enjoy our neighborhood," she says, explaining that one of her primary goals is "connecting and creating community with my neighbors." Those neighbors represent a range of ages and situations. There are seniors, young folks and some middle-aged people. Two couples near Zuke have new babies.

Zuke's methods of trying to promote connection and community are not fancy:

For the past two summers she has sponsored a neighborhood potluck. This summer, she'd like to have two potlucks instead of just one.

Thinking about how to keep things going in the wintertime, she decided to try to get people to go to local restaurants together. They've been to two since December, one Thai restaurant and one Mexican, both in a small shopping center within walking distance from Centennial.

About eight people came to the first and only five to the second. Zuke declines to set an attendance goal, saying, "I'd like people to want to show up; I don't want them to feel forced or coerced.

"I think what's most important to me is not numbers. It's just having more regular check-ins with my neighbors."

She takes walks frequently with her housemate, Lee Young, and with neighbors who might be available.

"Eileen, who is 87, she and I are daytime walking partners, and Catherine, who is in her 70s, she needs to walk for her health" so she sometimes joins in. Jim and Newt, a couple with 9-to-5 jobs, are often available for evening walks.

Sometimes (usually in the summer) she sees people in their yards and talks to them when she is out walking. In addition, she says, "I'm quite a gleaner.?... I am amazed at how much fresh fruit there is available. And I'm getting over my shyness about knocking on people's doors and asking if I can help myself to the apples dropping in their yard."

She was collecting apples last summer when another neighbor came by and asked what she was going to do with the fruit. She said she would make some juice if she had a machine and he said, "Oh, well, you can borrow mine."

Now she's on the lookout for a machine from a secondhand store.

She arranges everything from walks to restaurant visits with the help of an e-mail network. She is in touch with about 10 neighbors by e-mail now. E-mail supplements the list of addresses and phone numbers she made at the first potluck and distributed to the participants.

Recently, at the annual Springfield Chamber of Commerce Business Expo in the Gateway Mall, Zuke picked up a brochure about Neighborhood Watch. She said she was interested partly because her area has had a few petty crime problems.

A next-door home was burglarized and "easy money" items were taken. And Zuke herself has had her car rummaged through twice.

If she pursues it, she will discover that Springfield has an active Neighborhood Watch organization with 75 established groups, according to Tana Steers, the Springfield Police liaison for Neighborhood Watch. Don and Vickie Hale, president and vice president of the Springfield Neighborhood Watch Board of Directors, live just a few blocks from Zuke on Kelly Boulevard.

But Zuke said that while she might seek police advice on how to deal with certain situations, she does not want to try to form a new Watch group or otherwise become active in the organization.

When asked about it, she reverted to her main theme and said, "I think I'm more interested in the positive angle, connecting with my neighbors - connecting and creating community."
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Title Annotation:Springfield Extra; Laura Zuke has found her place in the world in the Kelly Butte area, where she works to foster neighborliness
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 6, 2008
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