“Not Just a Collection of Houses”

My mother-in-law lives in a peculiar neighbourhood. By choice, her nearest companions are birch trees, bullrushes and the occasional deer. Mind you, she’s built a human support network even among the hills and trees. There’s Woodworking Wayne across the lake, Bruce the Handy, and Sheila the Basketeer. They are fine friends and conversationalists, not to mention useful in a pinch for a hermit potter spinning out her earthy creations next to a tiny, loon-friendly lake. These are people who choose to live alone, next to nature, yet their sense of community is strong, even if a neighbourly drop-in might require four-wheel drive and a snow-plough.

Margery looks back on the kind of people-intensive neighbourhoods that most of us live in with thoughtful detachment. In response to a couple of my recent posts, she offered some reflections from an earlier life of community activism and at-home motherhood.  She’s a smart woman, and lord help anyone who mistakes the grey hair for soft-headedness. Here’s a view that comes from womanly experience:

 I read your essay on neighbourhood the other day, and it got me thinking of the all the years…that I spent a great deal of time and energy thinking, ranting and lecturing about that very concept.  The impetus was the crisis of the potential closure of the Broughdale neighbourhood school. This, of course, was accompanied by other sociological changes taking place which were not obvious initially, but genuine contributors. Basically, a change of life style: both adults working, taking their increased financial abilities for activities outside the neighbourhood both in evenings and on weekends. Of these families, if children were involved, there were fewer of them, and they were often transported out of the community to faith-based or French immersion schools….

Inner city neighbourhoods had ‘matured’ , real estate values had escalated,and second-time owners were not starting new families….Childless young couples, working singles and people wanting to own to rent to the increasing number of university students who wanted freedom from parental and land lord supervision. In the past, home owners in the community would rent to students, but only one or two rooms, and the student was a member of the family. Then the trend became independent basement apartments, or whole houses, and the entire situation became changed, and not…for the better.

And the thing that changed seemed to be that vague concept of neighbourhood. Who did people know? What relationship did they have with them? Who could be turned to in an emergency? Who could a key be left with so that a child could get access to home if the parent was inadvertently delayed or absent? Who could lend a hand, a cup of sugar or a chat over coffee? Who was watching the street? Who knew who was a stranger and who ‘belonged’?

These, in my view, became some of the yardsticks for a neighbourhood — not just a collection of houses, but a healthy, nurturing and safe place for all. I’m not sure if that sense of community, of reliable mutual assistance, of caring for other people’s children, is necessarily lost now….I suspect even in housing tracts of identical homes populated by people presumably of similar education and income that what I was striving for is, even now, a realistic goal.

She doesn’t long for the “good old days” when women were largely confined to home-making, but she sees, perhaps more clearly than most of us, the costs of how hurried our lives are. And thanks mainly to my own private family oracle, I got another post up without having to activate too many of my own neurons. Thanks, Mum.

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