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Angela Evans of Victoria checks out some books in the book-exchange box she made outside her home on Saturday. She and her neighbours on Clare Street have been trying to renew their sense of community by using the box to share reading material. (Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)
Angela Evans of Victoria checks out some books in the book-exchange box she made outside her home on Saturday. She and her neighbours on Clare Street have been trying to renew their sense of community by using the box to share reading material. (Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

How to be a good neighbour Add to ...

A green-and-white traffic sign can be found at either end of Clare Street.

The signs depict a house, a pedestrian, an automobile and a stick-figure child chasing a ball. Beneath the pictogram are the words SHARED ROAD.

Other signs decorate the top of parking poles. These include a blue dog, a pink cat, an orange setter, and a yellow tabby.

Clare Street is a modest block filled with modest homes and residents whose modest ambition it is to build community in the midst of the city.

The street runs a single block south from Oak Bay Avenue in Victoria's Gonzales neighbourhood. The houses include cottages and bungalows built after the war, as well as a few grander homes built in the boom years before the Great War. They are clad in stucco and shiplap, painted in archival greens and ice-cream pastels.

Midway down the block, in front of 1026 Clare, a homemade wooden box has been placed atop a post. It looks like a medicine cabinet, or an old-fashioned police call box.

A rhyming statement has been hand-painted in curly, purple lettering on the frame: "Got a book you no longer need? Leave it here for others to read.

Consider it a neighbourly deed."

Welcome to the Clare Street Book Exchange Box, an urban experiment in bringing small-town values to the big city.

As May gives way to June, tis the season for block parties and garage sales, the events in which residents who share a postal code have an opportunity to catch up on events.

Residents of two small streets - on Clare in Victoria and Rose Street in eastside Vancouver - have transformed ordinary blocks into special places.

The residents of the two streets share a surprising amount in common. Both Clare and Rose are only one block long. Residents on both organized to challenge cars zipping along streets on which children played. Artists on each street made homemade signs, which were posted along the block, a simple and effective way of letting commuters and other strangers know these were special streets.

Each is an oasis of friendliness.

Oddly enough, the residents of each do not know about the other. Denizens of Clare Street, I'd like to introduce you to the inhabitants of Rose Street.

"Good ol' Rose Street is kicking along," said Eileen Mosca, an artist who has lived on the street for three decades. "The atmosphere stays the same."

Planning is under way for a 23rd annual block party, which will feature road hockey games and chalk art exhibitions with asphalt as the canvas.

The locals still talk about the grand 20th anniversary party, the one in which a resident contributed a grand cake on which a baker mistakenly iced greetings to Road Street instead of Rose Street.

Over in Victoria, the Clare Street regulars gathered in a backyard on Saturday afternoon for the 17th annual potluck barbecue. They bundled against the unseasonably chill weather, gathering on lawn chairs in a circle around a fire fuelled by the wood salvaged from a renovation taking place on the block.

Children and dogs raced around tables filled with shared chips and salads, while the adults shared news about upcoming vacations and the postsecondary studies of adult children.

Breaking pita with the neighbours is a time-honoured way of keeping up on the Joneses.

"What happened here is what people made happen," said Angela Evans, who moved to this street 13 years ago.

"The sense of camaraderie and trust built over the years is because we've gone out of our way to make it happen."

She built the book exchange in front of her house from materials scavenged from nearby alleyways, including a discarded disco ball, whose mirrors decorate the roof of the box.

There is no lock, no list of rules. The concept is simple, though the same cannot be said of all the donated reading material.

"You get highly intellectual literary stuff," she said. "And potboilers."

On the weekend, both shelves were filled. There were copies of WoodenBoat and Pacific Yachting magazines. A copy of Living Organic shared space with The Complete Soapmaker. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and a Ken Follett thriller were available, as was a paperback copy of Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries and a volume of Maya Angelou poetry. Also on offer was a work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish.

Ms. Evans has two suggestions for anyone eager to follow Clare Street's example.

No. 1 - start with food.

"You share. You take. You treat each other."

No. 2 - always invite everyone.

"Everyone on the block gets an invitation. No matter what."

Clare Street, like Rose Street in Vancouver, has a good thing going.

This, too must be said. The grass seems just a little greener on Clare Street.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 

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