9 September 2020

Is neighbourliness a thing of the past, or is my generation just anti-social?

| Zoya Patel
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Is apartment living making it tougher to create a sense of neighbourhood? Photo: Region Media.

Yesterday a stranger knocked on our door. My partner and I, both working from home, looked up, startled.

“Are you expecting a delivery?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. We both cautiously moved to the door and opened it to reveal a friendly looking woman.

She introduced herself as a recent arrival to our townhouse complex, and asked some questions about parking. Both of us were a bit awkward and confused by this interruption to our day.

“Sorry for bothering you,” she said cautiously, and remembering our manners, we broke into smiles, and assured her it was OK before shutting the door in relief.

Thinking about this afterwards, as I drove out through the concrete roads that funnel traffic through the complex, stoically avoiding looking any passing neighbours in the eyes, I wondered why it was so shocking to have a stranger who wasn’t a StarTrack driver or Uber delivery knock on our door. It made me wonder if being neighbourly is a thing of the past.

I grew up with a strong sense of neighbourliness, fostered by my parents and their fellow homeowners from the same generation. We would play with kids in our street, have BBQs and gatherings, take care of each other’s homes when one family was away. As we got older, our parents became somewhat cut out of the deal, but we would still hang out with the teenagers who lived near us, walking our dogs together after school or waiting for the bus together in the mornings.

As I moved out and started living primarily in apartments and now a townhouse, this genial sense of community slowly dissipated. Living in buildings housing mostly people of my generation, I got used to pulling out my phone in the lift to avoid making eye contact, and only ever greeting other residents with a quick smile and nod.

The only neighbours we ever seemed to become cordial with were the older residents when we held doors open for them and who would strike up a conversation as we passed in the hallway.

Now living in a home that we own, crowded in next to dozens of other new residents in the development, it occurs to me that I haven’t actually spoken to a single neighbour until that poor women knocked on our door yesterday, only to be greeted with bemusement on the other side.

Before we moved into this house, we lived in a little cottage in Downer. Each morning as I walked my dog, I would inevitably run into a group of older men walking their own dogs. Each holding the lead of a bounding labradoodle or malamute, they would banter as they strolled along, often wandering into Ganggang cafe at the Downer shops for a coffee.

I would smile politely as I passed them, and then feel a strange sense of loneliness as I continued my stroll on my own. I almost wanted to be invited to join them on their walks, to be part of this neighbourhood club of dog walkers.

Sometimes I would take my dog onto Downer oval, where we would walk the perimeter, watching a group of neighbours letting their dogs play while they chatted in the middle of the green expanse. They were mostly people in their 40s or 50s, sometimes with kids in tow, and they had the easy casual camaraderie that I remember my parents having with our neighbours when I was a kid. For some reason, I couldn’t quite see a way to join in – I would probably find it easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger on Twitter than I would walking over to a group of strangers in my neighbourhood.

Is this a generational thing, or am I just an unfriendly individual? Is there an art to creating neighbourhood communities, or are they out there waiting for me to join in? How did the generations before us open the door to their neighbours? And is it possible for neighbourliness to thrive in modern residential developments, or are suburbs the key ingredient to a successful community of neighbours?

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We have a community where I live. people even wave from their cars into other cars!

Perhaps having been through the 2003 fires and having Community Fire units is part of it.

I took Rufus the American Staffy (our son 2’s dog) for a 30 minute walk today. The few folks out walking all said hullo, and either remembered him or wanted to meet him.

Being communal ‘starts with you’ aka ‘each of us’

Most of our cul-de-sac come out in the cold early on Anzac Day, and someone plays the Last Post.

Charlotte Harper8:51 am 13 Sep 20

I feel very lucky to live where I do. I chat regularly with 25 of my neighbours, from more than a dozen households in my street. We have occasional organized street parties and often catch up in each other’s driveways. One bakes for us from time to time, another gave me a seedling for our garden this week, and a third always has a treat for our dog. There is sharing of info on cars, renovations, gardening, work and vets. We care for a another’s pets when they travel, and invite each other in if one of us has found themselves locked out. Kids play together, too. There have been joint gifts for families experiencing loss, playing of Last Post in full WWI kit and even a wedding among the blossom trees!
I recommend organizing a street party by dropping notes into letterboxes. Not sure what the equivalent is for units – maybe a roof party?

It’s also true that our built environment has much to answer for. Mrs Ryoma and I have been in the same apartment complex for close to a decade, and I’d guess we might be the longest-living tenants in the entire block of 200-plus apartments. But we have a doorway leading to 5 other apartments, and there is no common space indoors.

When we moved here initially, we made an effort to welcome newcomers, and made some good friends initially. But because people would turn over roughly every 6-12 months, it became too tiring, and was rarely reciprocated. I’m not sure if there’s a cultural aspect to it as well, in that most of our neighbours are recent migrants and/or students. Not everyone feels comfortable with knowing their neighbours, so for people to turn up and talk to them spontaneously might be quite a shock.

It works in both directions, though; I think both newcomers and long-stayers need to make the effort. And maybe, as much as anything else, it’s a learned skill – like doing any exercises, we get better at it with practice.

A really important thing I think we’re missing is the concept of serendipity. If we only mix with people just like us, then we’re not exposed to different points of view, and the potential to make new friends. How many amazing relationships and opportunities are we collectively missing out on by not getting out of our comfort zones, and lifting our faces from our phones?

Zoya, thank you for raising this, as I think it’s really timely and important. I think we are all social animals, but as such we respond to the cues of the environment around us.

I think that there may be a generational component to it due to mobile phones, and this could be one reason why older generations find it easier to initiate conversations. Back in the pre-mobile phone era, there was a lot of “dead” time wasted in queues to pay bills, do banking, etc. Unless you had a book with you, striking up a conversation with a stranger was actually a good way to pass the time.

Likewise, I think our society was more homogenous, and less mobile. That meant it was likely you’d bump into people more often, and their faces were familiar. And whether we liked it or not, when families stayed in one area for decades, it meant that you’d often need to make small talk so as not to seem unfriendly. Suburban development likely also helped. People would both introduce themselves and make an effort to welcome newcomers in many places.

Now, I’d argue people take the easy option. We’re encouraged to be scared of the world around us by the 24-hour news cycle, whereas in reality, life is probably safer than it was then. Many of also choose to ignore the people around us – our phones are our safety blanket where we feel we can control things…and where we only engage with things that please or interest us.

Hi Zoya what an interesting piece. Firstly in my view it is less likely to be you and I dont think its a generational issue. All animals behave diferrently depending on their environment. I think you might be onto something re how the type of accomodation impacts people desire to connect. I live in one of the older Canberra suburbs and I personally couldnt imagine living in high density accomodation not because I havent done it I have lived in different parts of the world, Paris, London, Athens etc but I always found high density living made me focus more intensely on what I consider to be a healthy need for privacy and down time which isnt readily obtainable when living in dense living conditions.

I think it’s more of a superficial relationship which is why I don’t bother as much nowadays but still remain polite like waving or very infrequent neighbourly discussions. It’s impractical to know everyone in the street personally and privacy is valued. It still doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t look out for the neighbourhood if witnessing anything unfavourable happening like crime.

Wellington Sludge9:00 pm 11 Sep 20

I’d say that the belief that a relationship to a neighbour is superficial, or that it is impractical to know everyone in the street personally, is the problem. Neither of those are true, unless you work to make them true.

part of the problem, eh, Steve!?

It’s not about ‘me’ it’s about all of US.

I’ve lived in shared houses, apartments, townhouses and houses with gardens and there are always opportunities to be part of the community. Most of the time neighbours are as friendly as you are and appreciate contact. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

You mean to tell me you didn’t introduce yourself to your close neighbours when you moved into the neighbourhood?

Others’ mileage may vary, but we talk to our neighbours all the time. Kids across the road walk our dog.

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