The Story Nextdoor

Why you, too, should get all your writing ideas from this site.


As a journalist, and especially as a journalist during the pandemic, I feel there’s been a reportage dearth. My social calendar (aka my story-idea generator) has been wide open, and people in masks are harder to approach (are they welcoming a nosy neighbor like myself or silently cursing my name?) for a woman-on-the-street interview.

And so, I have turned, in recent months, to Nextdoor. For those who haven't experienced the agony, the defeat, and the eavesdropping glory that is Nextdoor, it's basically a neighborhood bulletin board where people in your community share thoughts about trash pickup and proposed bike lanes in Dupont Circle.

In between postings of dogs off-leash and Ring documentaries of porch-pirating, there is a gold mine of leads. For example, here's one that caught my eye:

I am being haunted and desperately need help…Years ago, I had an affair with the wife of a friend after they were separated but not divorced…Shortly after he learned about it, he killed himself. And he has been screwing things up for me for years. Recently, he stole my wallet and my new Apple watch, and a new electric razor…If anyone reading this knows of any psychic person who can help me I would be very grateful…”

This posting is like catnip for anyone who has worshiped at the altar of “Joe Gould's Secret.” So much so that, when I posted a public response along the lines of, “May I call you to discuss?” two of my friends from the neighborhood saw it (don't we all enjoy a second cup of coffee while reading Nextdoor?) and texted me.

“Of course, you'd be on the case,” said one. “Call me once you get the details,” said the other.

What I learned when I did get in touch with this man, later taking him to lunch, and later still meeting him at his apartment along with a medium who’d agreed to do a pro-bono psychic cleansing, was much more nuanced, complex, and sad. I went from being amused to seeing a deeper, better story.

I'm not yet sure what that story is, but I know I can find it. And, in the process, help a neighbor and fellow citizen. I've already located his electric razor. Whether I go full-on Joseph Mitchell is still TBD, but I'm off and running. I haven't felt this moved and motivated in a long time.

Nextdoor isn’t just for nonfiction writers, though. Which is great news. Last year, I posted something I grabbed from the site on my Facebook page, and Mary Kay Zuravleff, DC novelist extraordinaire, asked if she could use it as a writing prompt for her fiction students. Yes, and you’re welcome.

If I weren't currently working on a story I have tentatively entitled “The Haunted Apartment,” I’d definitely be on the trail of the local butcher who (according to Nextdoor) either is or isn’t going around my Georgetown neighborhood slapping his shop’s bumper stickers on the cars of owners who’ve given him bad reviews on Yahoo.

Mary Kay, you want it?

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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