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New Kind of Neighbourhood

Posted by Duncan Chambers on

A week ago, we moved to an apartment ‘on the farm.’ We’ve already experienced the benefits of living in this new location so close to our gardens, but, as it always is, moving was a challenge and I just want to take a minute to thank Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers for getting me through the week. Their last album as the Modern Lovers, Modern Lovers ‘88, was the one I played the most. It’s got songs about farming (“There ain’t no potato like natural potato, And there ain’t no tomato like natural tomato”), west coast parties, the Marx Brothers, being out late on summer nights, and even one about discovering a new neighbourhood. 

One difference I notice between this neighbourhood and our old one is how the front yards look. In our old neighbourhood, especially on Point Grey Road, many of the front yards look like this:

Or this:

I wonder who lives behind those hedges?

On these streets, there is typically some form of barrier separating the house and the sidewalk -- either a wall or fence with a gate, and often a monolithic cedar or laurel (or yew, for the more affluent properties) hedge blocking the entire house from the street. In our new neighbourhood there are a few such barriers, so mostly we get to see and appreciate how many of the houses look, and we get to wave to people on the porch, or have a conversation without feeling enclosed in a green hallway full of cars (to be clear, I love treed streets, which create more of an enclosing canopy -- our new street has amazing mature trees). 

A Riley Park--Little Mountain front yard

We live on one corner of our block and on another corner is The Mighty Oak Neighbourhood Grocery Store -- one of the “hidden gems” of Vancouver. The day after we moved in we went for lunch there and shared a vegan chorizo and potato wrap, and a brie and fig and arugula sandwich. The Mighty Oak has an important history with City Beet -- it was where Katie and Ruth originally held their CSA pickup. 

My other glasses broke recently and now with my backup pair, Liana and I match maybe too much.

Walking around this block alone, we can see four of our garden plots. On Wednesday afternoon/evening I was planting some herbs that we moved from a former landowner’s garden to one of these gardens on our block, and over a span of a couple hours I talked with four different people who were walking by. I talked with someone who had spoken with Maddy or Elana last year about that garden, who knew about the farm, and who lives on a third corner of our block. I demonstrated chive planting for a toddler with a matching pink helmet and bicycle (I have a matching blue helmet and bicycle), who seemed fascinated with everything in the world, and who was out for a walk with their grandparent. I responded to another person asking “[are] those shallots?” prematurely with a “yes, [they’re] chives!” to which they replied “nice” without missing a step, and talked with someone else who assured me that even though the sage plants are old, it’s “still good sage.”

This experience reminded me of another song about neighbourhoods and getting to know the people in your neighbourhood from the TV show Sesame Street. It's called "The People in Your Neighborhood." It was written by Jeff Moss in 1969, and originally sung several times at first by Bob Johnson (played by Bob McGrath) and an assortment of Anything Muppets, but was performed many times by different characters on the show after that. Each new verse describes a different jobholder who you might meet in your neighbourhood.

But how could the residents of a place like Sesame Street hope to meet one another if they had large hedges or fences surrounding their properties and cutting them off from the street? How could they expect to hear about the grocer’s big “sale on kale?” We are not the only ones farming Riley Park--Little Mountain front yards. Many of our neighbours with south-facing front gardens use these as productive spaces, or find other ecological alternatives to lawns. I think that having a big hedge, especially on a south-facing lawn, utterly precludes the possibility of meeting the people in your neighbourhood and reimagining how our streets could look. 

I have been thinking more about the neighbourhoods in which I have lived and what worked and what didn’t in each. I think we should try to identify more with our neighbourhoods. It is a really useful unit of analysis that often makes more sense than the city, province, or country. Neighbourhood councils and planning assemblies give people the opportunity to have a say in their own lives, and interact face-to-face with one another to arrive at decisions that will benefit friends and neighbours. We should seek to influence the world through conversations and events happening in spaces right outside our doors. For this we also need public places to meet, and Sesame Street has a song about that, too.

Vancouver Neighbourhoods with Boundaries (credit: https://www.vcbf.ca/education/scout-corner)

I acknowledge also that currently, for the most part, neighbourhood associations give power to people with the time and resources to participate. The phrase “there goes the neighbourhood” is often used to disapprove of changes in the types of people moving to a neighbourhood, which often goes hand-in-hand with racism, elitism, and parochialism. What would it look like to have democratic institutions in our neighbourhoods in which everyone has a say and it is understood that everyone has a right to the time and resources to participate (pay people for this work!)?

Neighbourhoods sometimes become a place for noticing legitimate decline and some people write nostalgic songs about what they used to be, or could have been. My favourite Arcade Fire song off of Funeral (2004) is “Neighbourhood #2 (Laïka),” and this band is famous for writing about the sense of placelessness and feeling of growing up in the suburbs, which typically lack neighbourhood character. Tom Waits’ “In the Neighborhood” off of Swordfishtrombones (1983) is a beautiful waltz filled with haunting imagery of an urban neighbourhood that is facing crime, houselessness, and constant construction, that was once a place where kids could buy ice cream, food got delivered without too much noise, and where the types of relationships that help humans thrive have been replaced by impersonal and isolating ones (check out the music video for this one if you haven’t seen it -- Waits leads an eclectic marching band filmed with an up-close fisheye lens through the streets; the kind of thing you might not even notice from behind a giant cedar hedge).

Perhaps the most famous and recognizable song about neighbours and neighbourhoods is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” by Fred Rogers. For those of us who grew up watching Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, we were shown interactions between people in TV shows that were about real and sometimes make-believe places with characters with real feelings who demonstrated neighbourliness. The main reason I love to farm in the city is to practice this face-to-face neighbourliness and maybe help create a new kind of neighbourhood. 

For now, I’m looking forward to, as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers put it, “those hot nights when a t-shirt feels right!” I’ll close with a verse from the song that inspired this post:

Well your friends were dancing on the lawn
It was a new kind of neighborhood
And no one stared like something's wrong
New kind of neighborhood
Oh-wow-o, new kind of neighborhood

- "New Kind of Neighborhood," Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (1988) 

 

See you on the front garden!

- Duncan

P.S. We seeded onions this weekend and for now they live with us too in our attic apartment.

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