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We yearn for days when we felt safe

Lesa Egalite, a self-described "safety freak," has a plan.

"I'm in school now, but I want to move to a small town where the population is much, much lower," she says.

Urban life bothers Egalite, who graduated from Leto High a decade ago, when _ she says _ it was a very different place. She's so "big on safety," she brought her whole family to a march Tuesday to mark National Night Out.

The image she described as her 5-year-old daughter carried an American flag between us was easy to visualize. It's what many people want, deep in that soft, mushy place we don't like to reveal in such a cynical world.

We want to return to that time we remember, when the whole village really did raise the child without play dates or babysitting co-ops or other such formalities.

We want Mayberry. We want Pleasantville. How else to explain home buyers now beating a path to the narrow streets of Westchase's neotraditional West Park Village?

We know what we want _ it's getting there that's hard.

Our suburbs bear the structure and psychological markings of a generation that overdosed on the 6 o'clock news. We saw too many cities lost to crack cocaine in the 1980s. True crime rates mean nothing in this age of missing children's photos on milk cartons.

Paranoia has replaced our natural instinct to connect.

To break down some of those barriers, law enforcement leaders urge us every August to get to know each other. In Hunter's Green and Cumberland Manors, Stonehedge and North Pointe, they do so over ice cream and barbecue, at petting zoos and on roller skates.

"It's next to impossible to be a community if you don't know who your neighbors are," Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Bill Sanders told the Plantation group. "It just can't happen."

You don't need to like your neighbors, they say. But with a little familiarity you can settle a loud stereo dispute without calling 911. Stop a tragedy before it happens. At the very least you can determine which young punk not to suspect when someone steals the compact discs out of your car.

It takes guts. Let's admit it _ anonymity is easier. These are people who know what you look like jogging. They've seen the condition of your lawn. Do you really want them to know that much more about you?

Get too involved _ serving on the homeowners board, for example _ and it's even a little risky. Jerry Bergeron, our president, said his wife "catches some hassles from people" because of his work.

Still, something compels him to stay involved. Maybe it's a lofty desire (which he did not articulate) to leave this world, or his tiny piece of it, a better place.

When I shared with Bergeron some remarks from homeowners who'd opted out of National Night Out _ that they make their friends at work, that they converse over the Internet _ he responded, "yes, but you don't really get to know the people at work all that well. And e-mail gives you that nice buffer. And so we have created a system in which everybody keeps each other at arm's length."

Arm's length does work for a lot of people.

But I sensed, among the two dozen who marched and shared Cuban sandwiches afterward, a desire for something more. Something intimate, spontaneous, informal.

No, Corinna Santiago said, she won't allow her 8-year-old son to go to the park by himself.

But she sees nothing wrong with a night of friendly conversation.

Carolene Heart, who moved here 23 years ago and raised three daughters here, believes that "finally, as a society, we're coming back to the need for community. We don't need for everybody on the block to have an edger and for everybody to have a blower."

She, too, can call to mind that childhood somewhere else _ in her case, Potomac, Md. _ where the neighborhood was close. I'm not sure how old you have to be to share that memory. Old enough to remember the first John F. Kennedy? Black-and-white images of Andy Griffith in uniform, way before they coined the term "community deputy"?

Surely we'll never turn the clock that far back.

But if there could be a happy midway point, I saw the beginnings of it Tuesday night.