David Burton, county engagement specialist for the Missouri University Extension Service, walks his dog Otis through his neighborhood in Republic, MO early Friday morning. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

I’m a newshound. Every day it’s a diet of newspapers, radio, online news feeds, social media and TV.  

But it’s Gus, the neighborhood stray cat of Wildwood Estates, that I truly care about. I couldn’t wait to find out what the vet said about the growth on the side of that cat’s head, and if it was operable.

There’s only one place to get that kind of news: Nextdoor.

It’s a neighborhood-focused social platform that lets you read what’s going on with people just down the street, or just across town, and publicly or privately message them.

Just wanted to apologize for my obnoxiously loud sports car on Dove Valley. I AM sorry.

Dustin Green, Chestnut Place

The site is free to use, and it’s simple to set up an account on Nextdoor.com. A password will get you access to your choice of neighborhoods to follow. Get the Nextdoor app, and you may also get posts from other states. Either way, your email box is going to get a lot of stuff.  “Housewife drama,” one person describes it.

Still, Nextdoor is where I find out about the passive-aggressive insomniac neighbor who leaves nasty notes about barking dogs on people’s doors. Or the guy in a black sedan who’s been driving verry slowly through somebody’s neighborhood.  

And about poor Elizabeth Buehler. Somebody stole her cauldron.

Elizabeth Buehler wrote about the theft on her neighborhood’s “Nextdoor” page and received sympathetic notes and a tip. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

 Some time last week we had a large antique cast iron caldron stolen from our yard. We are guessing scrappers, maybe. Sad it had been in the family a long time. Keep your eyes out for people scanning the streets. We saw a guy on a motorcycle driving very slowly looking at all the homes on our street. Do not know if it is connected or not.

Elizabeth Buehler

There’s a fair amount of Mediacom bashing. Dogs needing homes. Cats needing homes. Single moms needing work. Neighbors warning about shady tree trimmers.

The Springfield Police Department has a Nextdoor account to post public safety information. The Springfield-Greene County Health Department issues health alerts on its account. City Utilities sends out targeted messages to customers.  

Then there’s David Wilson of Green Tree Hills, who wants everyone to know he’s not a criminal. He just wants to take a walk.

“Just a fare (sic) warning to green tree hills neighborhood… I’m going to start taking my evening walks in the neighborhood. I understand I’m under 60 so please don’t call the police and post me on here as suspicious. Trying to get back into shape and not looking not casing houses.”

David Wilson, Green Tree Hills

What exactly is Nextdoor?

Nextdoor’s app connects neighbors to each other. (Photo: Nextdoor)

Nextdoor is the tofu of social platforms. It takes on the bitter, the mellow and the whang of whatever’s thrown with it.  

 Nextdoor fancies that up in its corporate profile.

 The San Francisco-based entity (NYSE: KIND) describes itself as a for-profit, “purpose-driven” company (ads are prominent and frequent on the site), “where you connect to the neighborhoods that matter to you so you can belong.”

It says nearly 1 in 3 U.S. households, and more than 290,000 neighborhoods in 11 countries, use Nextdoor: “It’s where communities come together to greet newcomers, exchange recommendations, and read the latest local news. Where neighbors support local businesses and get updates from public agencies. Where neighbors borrow tools and sell couches. It’s how to get the most out of everything nearby…”

 Help! My dishwasher is leaking… Looking for an independent plumber who is: local, honest, trustworthy, reasonable and talented. Wings and halo must be able to fit through front door. Hurry, I’m not sure I remember how to wash dishes by hand.

Trenna Underhill, Wildwood Estate

There are plenty of other sources of news and chatter out there — neighborhood associations, Facebook, Springfield Daily Citizen, and Neighbors by Ring, the seeing-eye doorbell people. Why open Nextdoor?

The new neighborhood watch

Elizabeth Buehler had a fifty-pound cast iron cauldron, that she used as a flower pot, stolen from her property. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Elizabeth Buehler, of the stolen cauldron, likes the immediacy of Nextdoor. “It lets people be aware of the stuff that’s going on out there, and bouncing it off their neighbors.” But even that can be a bit much. She’s an occasional reader when posts pop up, and only when a title grabs her interest.

“It’s more about information or what’s happening now, more than people’s selfie-poses- type-of-things. Usually, you get a fast response from people.” Like the time she heard a deafening boom outside, and her neighbors ran to Nextdoor to ask if others heard it, and what it was. “The feedback is not skewed by somebody trying to impress you. They don’t care who you are.”

The cauldron theft was only the third time she’s posted on Nextdoor, and it quickly got replies. One person said they were sorry for her loss. Someone saw a strange person driving slowly around her cul de sac, studying each house. Probably a scrapper, said one. Another countered, More likely a random druggie looking for a quick $100.  

The posts haven’t brought back Buehler’s 50-plus-pound black iron caldron, but she decided not to file a police report. “Our police department is so overwhelmed, I don’t want to burden them. It’s not worth wasting their time.”

Just got ripped off by porch pirates at driftwood and laurel st. They got about $40 in meat. Woe be unto them if I catch them and I’m going to try.

Jan Zeiters, Marlborough Manor

Suspicious sedans. Strangers rifling through mailboxes. Overnight car break-ins. Is Nextdoor making neighborhoods safer by sounding digital alarms?  

Maybe, if neighbors will take an extra step, says Cris Swaters, Springfield Police Department spokeswoman.

“From a police perspective, we would encourage anyone who witnesses a crime in their neighborhood to call us in addition to sharing it with their neighbors on Nextdoor,” Swaters says.

She has revived the PD’s Nextdoor account, where the public can look for trending crime data, crime prevention and other community event-related information. There’s also a link about the Police Area Representative, or PAR officer program, and how to find yours.

It would seem handy if PAR officers could monitor the Nextdoor crime chatter in the neighborhoods they oversee, but Nextdoor doesn’t allow agency accounts like the PDs to monitor, see or participate in posts or conversations that the agency did not start, Swaters says.

Can virtual neighbors be good neighbors?

David Burton encountered his neighbors Mary Ann and Rusty Swift out for their morning walk. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

David Burton promotes a series of free, online classes offered monthly by the University of Missouri Extension called “Neighboring 101. Courses and videos feature national “communityists” and authors who preach the gospel of neighboring and how it builds better communities and happier, less lonely people.

As county engagement specialist for the MU Extension, Burton also gives talks about it and lives it every day in his own neighborhood. He strives to be on a first-name basis with his neighbors. He hosts “Front-yard Fridays,” providing soft drinks or ice cream for any neighbor who wants to drop by and pull up a lawn chair. 

Only a few neighbors use Nextdoor, he says, “So when I have organized neighborhood events, I share it on Nextdoor, on our neighborhood Facebook page, talk to my neighbors about it, text my neighbors about it and hand out fliers.  

“The Nextdoor App could be one tool in your neighboring toolbox,” but he adds, “Nothing beats face-to-face communication or front-yard interaction… Social media works best when it extends other ways of connecting rather than replacing them.”

And that’s how Nextdoor and Gus, the stray cat of Wildwood Estates, turned a neighborhood of strangers into neighbors.

A cat brings neighbors together

Gus, the stray cat of Wildwood Estates, turned a neighborhood of strangers into neighbors through their use of the Nextdoor app. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The gray tabby had been roaming the south-side neighborhood long before he showed up on Lisa’s porch camera three years ago. She posted his photo on Nextdoor, thinking he belonged to somebody. A woman living several blocks away popped on: “That’s Gus.” She’d been feeding him, so had a resident on Ramsgate, and Grand Vista, and Wildwood Circle. Even the Orkin man knew Gus.

“Once I found out his name and knew he was a roamer,” Lisa says, “I started leaving food out for him.” In winters, she lined a box shelter with a heating pad. She wasn’t the only one.

Lisa, who’s lived there some 27 years with her husband Rick and still knew very few neighbors, became part of a community that understood Gus’ right to be free and well fed. 

 “I’m not an ‘app’ type of person,” she says. And she avoids Facebook — doesn’t like the idea of posting a profile, or political affiliations, and people getting all “judgy.” With Nextdoor, she says, you can remain a neighbor with people and not have to provide a profile.  

“Since I got on it, I’ve met other people who take care of Gus. And now I feel like some of these people are my friends.” 

Then one day Gus arrived with a bloody wound by his ear. She tried to dress it. Not long after, a neighbor alerted Lisa that Gus appeared unstable and unable to stand. What followed were seven appointments and four vets in search of an accurate diagnosis.

Lisa began posting Gus updates on Nextdoor for the neighbors who cared for him.  Prognoses ran the gamut: Maybe vertigo. An ear infection. A mass on his ear. Cancer, maybe? She tried targeting her posts to the immediate neighborhood, but once the Gus story got reposted, it took off.  Her neighbors spontaneously raised money, first to have him neutered, then to defray his multiple trips to the vet. Somebody sent a check for $250. Lisa says she didn’t solicit funds — neighbors and outsiders just started asking where to send donations. “I felt kind of weird about it,” so she directed them to Gus’ vet.   

There is a happy ending. Branson vet Dr. Owen Allphin diagnosed the problem: A polyp had developed and presented through his ear. The surgery was successful.

Except for one thing. Gus’ head tilts, and it may always be that way, the doc said.

Gus is currently recovering from ear surgery, paid for by a loosely knit community, in the basement of one neighborhood resident. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

But Gus isn’t in pain; he has a ravenous appetite and demands attention with impatient head butts. He enjoys watching The True Crime channel on his people mattress in his basement room. “Gus is just one of the best cats.” And Lisa knows cats. She has four more upstairs.

Lisa would like to see him return to his old life outdoors if he chooses, but she’s taken some heat over that idea. Nextdoor can be cruel.

The mere mention of possibly releasing Gus back to the outdoors when he recovers — “You get a lot of people upset about him being an outdoor cat. They think it’s horrible that he’s even outside at all. But he’s always been outside,” she says. “He has his regular stops. … He probably misses these people.”

If Gus never gets to 110 percent in his recovery — he has to be able to jump up a tree and get away from a predator — Lisa promises she won’t let him out. “He’ll be here if anyone wants to come visit him. I don’t want to steal him from anybody.”  

Surprising community uses for Nextdoor

Unlike the PD’s account, “public agencies” like City Utilities can communicate with verified residents.

“We can contact customers at individual locations using ‘blast’ calls that can go to a handful of customers or a larger number,” says CU spokesman Joel Alexander. “We use that system to send notifications after power outages, to issue boil advisories, and it’s also used for notification of a pending shutoff for non-payment.” Through CU’s “My Account” feature, customers can select certain types of notifications that they wish to receive and by what method, he says. “We keep looking for a good way to communicate with customers, and there are so many options out there.”

The Springfield-Greene County Health Department used Nextdoor early in the COVID-19 vaccine outreach movement to promote the vaccination clinics, says Aaron Schekorra, public information officer.  Nextdoor posts reached an estimated 9,000-10,000 people in that campaign.  

Schekorra recently used Nextdoor to post an interactive map directing people to official cooling centers and other public buildings during the recent heat wave.  “We are going to continue utilizing it for Public Health information.” 

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O’Dell is a veteran journalist who has covered health care, business, education and investigative pieces throughout her career. She’s a St. Louis native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to working for a Texas newspaper, she was on the first staff of USA Today in Washington, D.C., and spent most of her newspaper career at the Springfield News-Leader. More by Kathleen O’Dell