It took a decade of living on a busy regional road in Saint Catharine’s, Ont., before Genevieve Conn Bailey was able to call it a “neighbourhood.”
There’s no sidewalk along the traffic-congested street and each house is on a huge lot.
“It doesn’t lend itself to walking over to borrow a cup of sugar,” Ms. Conn Bailey, a retired educator, says.
But last fall, when she received a notice in the mail that an iconic farmhouse across the road, as well its verdant tree canopy (home to the city’s oldest tree), would be razed to make room for two new properties, she decided it was time to meet the neighbours. She knew she needed help to stop the development.
While suburban development and condo living have helped us become a more individualized society (no need to say hi to the neighbours if you leave home by car via the garage), there seems to be one thing that brings neighbours together: shared grievances.
Whether it’s the absentee landlord who just won’t fix the hot water or the city planners who decide it’s a good idea to build a condo tower in the middle of a heritage district, neighbours are finding that common frustrations can be the launch point to friendships they may never have made otherwise.
After Ms. Conn Bailey read the letter from the city, she began knocking on doors of neighbours she’d never met before, asking them what they thought about the development – some said they didn’t care.
“I never felt it was a neighbourhood before, but I started calling it that to get everyone feeling like there was a sense of community and they had to get involved and fight it,” she says.
She held a meeting at her house, collected more than 100 signatures on a petition to stop the development, and even hosted a fundraising barbecue to raise money to hire a planner to look into the issue and to formally file an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board.
After several stressful months, she and her neighbours declared victory this summer: The board ruled that the local homeowner who wanted to develop further could not create two new building lots on the historic piece of land.
An even greater result of Ms. Conn Bailey’s work?
“I think it just created a greater sense of community and it just gave me a greater sense of belonging that I’m not sure I ever had,” she says.
At a yard sale she had a few weeks ago, neighbours pulled into her driveway to check out her wares – something she says they never would have done before.
“I know where they’re going on their vacations and I know a little bit about their families. And people wave!” she says.
Erica Marx, who grew up in a rural community, was used to turning to neighbours for everything, including rides to school when her car broke down.
After she moved to her first apartment in Ottawa 17 years ago, she didn’t learn any of her neighbours’ names.
Four years ago, when the mother of six transplanted her family to a house in an Ottawa community managed by a large rental firm, she realized she had to join forces with others. The complex had been plagued for years by mice and bedbug infestations and tenants complained about management neglecting maintenance requests.
Ms. Marx started attending meetings held by the community-based organization ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) to hear tenant complaints and became vocal about her own grievances.
The efforts of Ms. Marx and ACORN recently prompted a city councillor to set up a hotline for area residents to file formal complaints about management issues.
There are people in the community she says she wouldn’t have met had it not been for sharing their frustrations at monthly meetings.
“Some of them are so happy to see me because of some of the ways we've been dealing with [the management company] that they'll hug me,” she says.
When she’s grocery shopping in the neighbourhood, people ask about her children – a custom she thought she’d left behind in the country.
Betsy Donald, a geography professor at Queen’s University, says the recent mobilization of apartment tenants and rise of neighbourhood associations is the result of governments withdrawing from services and downloading them to families and communities.
“It has a lot to do with a shared vested interest and passion for your place,” Professor Donald explains. “It’s a shared emotional geography. It’s territorially bound. It’s not just about property values – it’s a deeper emotional connection to a place.”
While community organizing doesn’t always result in the same kind of success Ms. Conn Bailey and Ms. Marx have enjoyed, sometimes the simple act of venting can build neighbourly bonds.
When Jason Tompkins, a 28-year-old customer service representative, moved from his family home in Burlington, Ont., to a high-rise in downtown Toronto in June, it was a big adjustment. Instead of sharing a home with his parents, he was in a building filled with hundreds of tenants spread over more than 20 floors. He never said more than “hi” or flashed a half-smile at his neighbours when he saw them in the hallway.
There were some gripes he had with the building: One or two of the building’s three elevators was often out of service, the ear-piercing fire alarm seemed to go off multiple times a week and twice his hot water service was inexplicably cut off. But he just dealt with it privately.
But then one day, all three elevators shut down. He came home from a Sunday night grocery trip and found the lobby flooded with tenants, all waiting to get up to their floors. Instead of standing around in silence like usual, they were abuzz.
“And so everyone's talking about the elevators, and then management doesn't care about maintenance issues, and other stuff like that,” he says. He joined in on the ranting session until he caved and walked up to his apartment.
And when people are too shy to chat with neighbours face-to-face, technology has given them opportunities to mobilize.
When Mr. Tompkins discovered a Facebook page one tenant had created for residents, he started swapping horror stories with others about management failings.
“It's good to get to know people and know that I'm not the only one suffering here. Sometimes management flick the problem off as someone being a problem tenant but I don't see that as the case,” he says.
While Mr. Tompkins says he’s pleased he’s gotten to know some of his fellow tenants through the Facebook page and waiting-for-an-elevator venting sessions, he can’t help but think, “I wish we had something more positive to talk about.”