Andrea Curtis is the author of City of Neighbors, a coming book for young readers.
The first time I actually thought about what it means to be a good neighbour I was living with my boyfriend in a yet-to-be-gentrified industrial area near King Street and Strachan Avenue in Toronto. The streets were infused with the powerful odour of a local slaughterhouse, a scent we referred to as “pig death.” Our place faced onto a neglected park and our next-door neighbour was a man 20 years our senior who had been born and raised in the area. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He remembered when the pigs headed for slaughter spent their last days in the park before a goat named Judas corralled them toward their demise. He was generous with the terracotta pots he painted with Maud Lewis-like flowers, and with his stories about the history and characters of the area.
With our neighbour as our guide, we became stoop sitters and park watchers. We monitored the comings and goings of dogs and children and their caregivers. We became friendly with the neighbour who sold bicycles from his garage and the performance artist up the street famous for his Silver Elvis impression. We baked cookies for kids and shared flour or butter. The truth is, we didn’t have to work very hard to be good neighbours, it was part of the fabric of the community.
When my roommates and I decided to put on a lantern festival, the whole neighbourhood got involved. Local kids made paper lanterns at free workshops we held in the community centre, neighbourhood musicians and storytellers agreed to perform, Elvis took a turn on stage. I hadn’t lived in Toronto for very long at that point but it was definitely living up to its reputation as a city of neighbourhoods. It felt great to live in that gritty, undeveloped part of town and feel completely safe and welcome.
Today, the story couldn’t be more different. Across the city and country we’re faced with a serious mental-health crisis, rising numbers of unhoused citizens, the horror of a teenager’s unprovoked murder in a subway station, a swarming, stabbings on the streets, more terrifying attacks on public transit. It’s not surprising that we’re all talking about how to fight off random assault, where to stand on the subway platform to avoid being pushed into oncoming trains, advising one another to always keep one earbud out to listen for a stranger’s approach. I’m not even surprised there’s a new combat training course on offer about how to defend yourself on public transit or widespread calls for an increased police presence. It’s not easy to be a good neighbour when you don’t know who, if anyone, you can trust.
And yet, living with constant fear and suspicion is a very poor option, indeed. And if what we’d really like is that city of neighbours, where people feel safe and seen, cared for and caring, it’s exactly the wrong approach. That’s because fear is the mortal enemy of connection. Suspicion and lack of trust are the kryptonite of good neighbours – and healthy cities in general.
You don’t have to dig around much for credible research that shows negative impressions of one’s neighbourhood – for instance, a sense that it’s unsafe, crime-ridden, lacks green space and is unwalkable – leads to depression, anxiety and feelings of stress. It’s a self-perpetuating negative emotion machine. The more unsafe and disconnected we feel, the more unsafe and disconnected we feel. It’s a terrible loop that leads ever downward.
But there are also many places around the world where people have found ways to short-circuit this vicious cycle. They’re building neighbourhoods where people spend time together hanging out, where neighbours know one another and forge relationships, where people talk and enjoy music, art and sport. And the neighbourhoods are objectively happier, healthier, greener, cleaner and far more safe.
One shining example is Jackson Heights, Queens – one of the densest neighbourhoods in New York and one of the most diverse in the country – where, during the pandemic, volunteers closed a long stretch of busy 34th Avenue to vehicles and opened it to people. And the people came. They played soccer and danced, built gardens, picnicked and held birthday parties. Now it’s a permanent public space known as Paseo Park, a two-kilometre-long mostly pedestrian street. People there report they’ve met new neighbours, their mental health has improved and the area directly outside the many schools on the corridor is demonstrably safer for children. We’ve seen the same thing in Toronto, where Lakeshore Boulevard was regularly transformed from a six-lane highway into a people-centred path where kids and families could ride, walk, scooter and play, where elderly people could stroll and enjoy the lake without fear of being mowed down by speeding trucks.
And it’s not only about getting rid of cars (though it helps). Community connection can be cultivated through painting a street with chalk, with live music or dance or theatre in a public square, with better park lighting and accessible seating, with pop-up parkettes that bring butterflies and greenery and a sense of fun to parking lots.
When the garbage-strewn, derelict underpass beneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway was turned into the Bentway, a beautiful open air art gallery, a place to roller skate, eat or just sit and watch the world go by, the entire area came to life. Cities around the world have similar success stories.
Of course, this is not to underestimate the necessity for better mental-health resources, shorter wait times for those in crisis, eliminating barriers to access and essential supports for unhoused people. We need a living wage for workers and new revenue streams for cities so we can rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and services. But in order to be good neighbours again, we must collectively work at building welcoming, clean, accessible and equitable public spaces. The way to restore our cities and our relationships to one another is not to hide out in our individual fortresses or to attack the most vulnerable. The most constructive path forward is to throw ourselves back together.
When my boyfriend and I moved away from that industrial neighbourhood a few years after the lantern festival, I was worried we’d never find such a community again. And, as if to confirm my suspicions, the day we unpacked our boxes in the new place a gun was found in a nearby alley. Then, one of the first nights sleeping in our new house, we were woken by a drunk guy banging on our door, running from someone with a knife. But we stuck around, hung out on our stoop, shared homegrown tomatoes and garam masala, seedlings and tools. Gradually, we came together with our neighbours. We celebrated one another’s graduations and weddings, we mourned one another’s losses. Now, at Halloween, there’s a local party in that alley with pumpkins and a poutine truck. If someone bangs on our door in the night, it’s probably a neighbour who’s forgotten their keys.
It’s not too late to alter the narrative of fear and suspicion that threatens to take hold. But we’re going to need to come together on multiple fronts to rebuild the bonds of community, and recreate a city of neighbours.