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?