'Nextdoor' app aims to connect neighbors in Anchorage

It started as a quest to protect a reindeer.

About two years ago, somebody tried to break into Albert Whitehead's home on 10th Avenue, near downtown Anchorage. They also tried to break into the pen of Whitehead's well-known pet reindeer, Star.

Whitehead later learned from police the culprits lived in his neighborhood. He decided, at that moment, he needed a way to know his neighbors better. He went online, did some research, and came across what he was looking for: A free website and smartphone application called

Today, largely due to his efforts, more than 320 people in Whitehead's neighborhood of South Addition are members of Nextdoor, posting about everything from alerts about car break-ins to requests for recommendations on a drywall contractor. The site, which might be described as a virtual neighborhood watch, is taking hold in other places in Anchorage too, with Whitehead emerging as the city's Nextdoor spokesperson and staunchest advocate.

"That's why Nextdoor started (in Anchorage), because of protection for Star," Whitehead said recently. "And it took off from there."

Since its 2010 launch, Nextdoor has grown to more than 49,000 neighborhoods nationally, including nearly 40 neighborhoods in Anchorage. A number of Anchorage Nextdoor sites only have a handful of members, while others have surpassed 100 users, including the neighborhoods of Government Hill, Rogers Park and Airport Heights, areas which also boast active community councils.

In general, the growth process is slow, Whitehead said. The largest group of users so far can be found in South Addition, an older Anchorage neighborhood that includes homes north of Westchester Lagoon and east to Cordova Street.


Founded by a group of California-based technology entrepreneurs, Nextdoor differs from Facebook as each neighborhood website is private to people within a specific geographic area. Nextdoor uses four different methods to verify a person who joins the site does indeed live in the neighborhood, including sending a postcard to a listed address. It's meant to be contained, and its creators say no personal information is shared across neighborhood boundaries.

In Anchorage, people post babysitting notices; alerts about car break-ins and missing pets; and details about school fundraisers. Sometimes people reconnect with old friends or family acquaintances. In the summertime, neighborhoods used their sites to track bear activity.

In late November, Nextdoor posts helped rally Government Hill to the cause of helping one resident put up his landmark Christmas light display.

"Government Hill residents we need your help," said the post from Nov. 22. "Jeff Fowler recently had surgery and is not able to put up the famous holidays lights in his yard."

The Fowlers' Christmas lights have grandly heralded the holidays for years, but after undergoing surgery on a broken collarbone, Fowler expected to scale back the display. Once word got out through online messages, more than a dozen people showed up, decorating the house with an array of lights, lawn figures, a manger, a Ferris wheel.

"If they hadn't come, it wouldn't have gotten done," said Fowler's wife, Brenda.

Iris Matthews, president of the Rogers Park Community Council, said she expects the site to become a helpful tool for organizing neighborhood projects. At the start of the new year, Rogers Park's Nextdoor group had more than 130 members.

When contacted last month, Matthews said she was about to post a request for a babysitter.

"I'm certain there are more teenagers I just don't know," Matthews said.

In other cities, Nextdoor has also emerged as a tool for law enforcement and other public agencies. Mindful of that possibility, Whitehead said he has reached out to the Anchorage Police Department about a partnership.

That hasn't happened yet, because as Nextdoor began gaining traction, the Anchorage Police Department was preparing to launch another public advisory application called Nixle. That service, which sends public safety notifications via text and email, has about 4,000 subscribers, and is growing steadily, said APD Communications Director Jennifer Castro.

Castro said APD wants to stick to Nixle for now, to avoid confusing people and to conserve resources. At the same time, Castro said APD is aware of Nextdoor and strongly supports it. She said she hopes neighbors will take the step of sharing messages sent out via Nixle on Nextdoor pages.

If more neighborhoods subscribe, Castro said APD may eventually become involved with Nextdoor for community policing purposes. She noted earlier this year, officers with the Boise, Idaho, Police Department began using the site to get in touch with neighborhoods it patrols.

Whitehead, for his part, hopes to see the day when there are hundreds of people on each Nextdoor neighborhood site, as there are in other places in the United States. He'd like it to help drive crime down and help residents connect with local government and businesses.

At the end of the day, he just wants to see more people talking to one another.

On the first Saturday of every month, Whitehead and a group of Nextdoor users from South Addition gather at the New Sagaya City Market, drinking coffee and talking. Some recent meetings have yielded upward of a dozen people, many of whom did not know one another. On Saturday, Whitehead set up a "Nextdoor South Addition" sign at the end of the table, and set out a nametag with his name on it.

"I just feel more connected," Laura Bottger, who joined in, said of using Nextdoor. "Like when people join and say a little something about themselves."


At one point, Dawn Scott walked up to the table. A former Anchorage resident, Scott told Whitehead she now lives in Denver and belongs to a Nextdoor site there.

Then Scott pointed to friends sitting at a table nearby. She said they lived on A Street in South Addition but hadn't heard of the website.

Before she walked back, Whitehead pressed a couple of Nextdoor pamphlets into her hand, to pass along.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.