As I drove out of my garage this morning and along the street where our house tucks into the one corner, I waved to the gardener working on the pavement outside the house across the road. He was born in Filibusi, Zimbabwe — same as my Dad! Further along, I smiled at the guard outside the swimming school. He and I have never chatted but we wave and smile every time I pass by.
The owner of the swimming school and I did a door to door campaign several years ago to raise funds for a fence across the open area that borders our suburb as we had a spike in crime. In fact, our very committed Resident’s Association ensured that over a period of time our whole suburb is fenced, the park has been rejuvenated with new playground equipment and the verges along the main road are beautifully landscaped.
Just this week we left our garage door open by mistake and the lady who lives opposite us rang the door-bell to let us know. When we moved into the area 14 years ago in the middle of a hot December she arrived with a watermelon and since then we’ve had opportunity to complain about noisy parties nearby and burst water pipes.
Also this week we got a phone call from Bruce. We’ve been trying to get together for a coffee with him and his lovely wife and their two little ones for a couple of weeks now. After initially battling to fall pregnant their second little girl was born a month ago. We haven’t been over to their house for a while now, but it’s about time we welcomed the newcomer!
During lockdown a new couple moved into the house next door to us and are now the proud parents of a little baby girl. We haven’t had a chance to meet her yet because of COVID but we’ve taken meals across and keep in touch via Whatsapp. In the mean time they’ve borrowed a ladder and now also employ the same gardener as us.
Living in Cities
This reflection on the people I know in our street has been stimulated by a fascinating book I’m reading. It’s written by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s and is called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jane was an American-Canadian journalist and activist who galvanized communities to rally against the construction of highways through thriving down-town villages in New York and Toronto.
She talks about the differences of city living to suburban or small town living. As a person who loves cities she highlights that many people actually prefer living in a city because of the very anonymity it provides. The paradox is that because there are so many people a kind of privacy is preserved to protect one another from the invasion of people and crowds.
The danger of course, is the possibility of becoming isolated leading to loneliness and even depression. The other problem for people living in cities is the danger of strangers, some innocent and curious visitors, others with more harmful intentions.
Jacobs was an acute observer of human activity and behaviour. She was a vehement proponent of designing workable living spaces based on what was actually happening and proven to be effective. She objected to imposing theoretical models that had no basis in reality. And what she observed is something we all know — people love watching other people.
Why this is so valuable is that it pinpoints the importance of eyes on the street. While people are casual spectators of the comings and goings around them, they are inadvertently keeping the street safe. In other words they notice when things are out of place. They recognize the stranger and pay a little bit more than the usual attention.
But Jacobs makes the point that it takes more than simply seeing. It also requires people to take action when necessary. She gives an example of a child falling and breaking his wrist and a shopkeeper bringing the child into his store and calling the Mom. She also shares of a man berating a young girl and a small crowd starting to gather in an intimidating way around him. In all of these instances it is not so much about being personal friends with everyone in the street but of having a vested interest and sense of ownership in the well-being of those who live on it.
Reclaiming Safety and Care One Street At a Time
I love this idea that we could make this world a better place one street at a time. I understand that we have busy, demanding work, our own interests to pursue and responsibility for our immediate and wider families. But what if we extended our tent pegs a little wider? Not to the whole city, or even the whole town or suburb — just to the people who live in our street, from one corner to the next.
Again it’s not about having to know their lives, it’s not even about friendship. It’s about knowing who lives where, taking note if everything is in place and doing something if needed. It’s caring enough to step across the road to say your garage door is open, or your dog found her way into my garden or let’s sign a petition to get the water pipes replaced in our area. It’s putting your hand up to say “I’ll keep an eye on your place while you’re on holiday” or “You’re welcome to keep your overloaded truck in my yard overnight so it’s not left on the street.” All of which scenarios have happened in the years we’ve lived on this street.
I am so appreciative of the people who live around me and their acts of kindness over time. My hope is we can all create a small ripple effect that will become a mighty wave, by just extending a helping hand to our neighbours.