I live in a beautiful city.
It’s true, wee little seven-square-mile New Westminster is situated on the shores of the silty working Fraser River, a river steeped in history and triumph and history and nostalgia and tragedy. I often daydream about how New Westminster developed; up and up above the river, street after street, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, little modest houses at the crest of the hill placed strategically for flood prevention, or business access, or proximity to others, and not real estate value. I think about the Great Fire of 1898, and how the city rebuilt itself in only two years.
There are things that make New Westminster nice to call home. People I know here, relationships I have developed are certainly the most important. I feel safe here. It’s nice to look at. There are all sorts of awesome giant trees and New Westminster has parks all over the place, beautiful places of respite. But it’s more than that – New Westminster is a community.
There are things I look for that hint at the community it is: people still say hello and smile to strangers when walking. People go out for walks after dinner and on weekends and comment on things in your garden, and ask you things like “who built your rock wall?” People use the parks, for hours at a time, in every way imaginable. People enjoy the city and drink it in.
I have made a conscious decision to be involved in creating the community I live in. I do not believe that one can sit idly by if one wants to help shape and control what happens. So, I’ve jumped in, in small ways, ways I feel are contributing. So, what am I doing to create community?
I view my fellow residents as neighbours I just haven’t met yet. I’m not saying you have to love every neighbour, but a neighbour isn’t just someone who lives near you. A neighbour can be relied on in an emergency. A neighbour shares similar concerns to you about your street and safety. A neighbour can appreciate improvements in your neighbourhood. All residents can be neighbours.
I acknowledge that not everyone may care as much as me. This applies to both city employees and other residents. I’m not saying they don’t care. Many people do and simply don’t have time to show it, and that’s okay. Small groups of active citizens can change the world. And when I start thinking that the people who work for the city should “care more” I remind myself that many of them don’t live here, and many are applying skills they acquired in school to a task that pays their bills. It quiets the righteous indignation that tells me they should care more. Also, I say thank you to them for doing their jobs. It might be their job but it’s nice to get thanked.
I tell everyone I can, nicely, that they should join in. No one wants to be lectured to, but sometimes people need to be reminded that they, too, can be responsible for change in their worlds. I also try hard to put the right people in touch with one another. Not everyone will be a good fit for everything, and so it’s a bit like playing matchmaker – and if I come across the perfect person or project matchup then I make sure they are aware of each other and let it happen naturally.
I recognize how much time I can dedicate. Sometimes it takes a while to determine what projects can fit into my schedule. Right now I’m helping out with a documentary film fest and my regular work, and that’s about all the time I have. When the film fest is over, I might look for another project to get excited about. Some people have lots of time and others have 2 hours a month. You need to search diligently for the right thing to get excited about and try a few on. Be honest about your availability and your commitment level. Every project takes all kinds to make happen.
Stop complaining and start doing. Do one small thing, and then another, and then another. Lead by example and don’t judge others by what they do or do not do, just try and do what you do really incredibly well. Many people are waiting for someone else to start something and want to jump on board to a project they can sink their teeth into. Just jump in. Don’t sit around whining – just put it out there.
And finally, food and drink go an awful long way. Host a block party. Invite your neighbours for a hot dog and some cake. Make lemonade. Give away your extra garden goodies. It doesn’t have to be a big deal and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. After our first block party, I noticed the difference right away – neighbours waving and smiling as they passed and saying hello and using my name. Suddenly, I was a person to them, and not a house number. I love that.
This post originally appeared on Tenth to the Fraser, a website I contribute to on July 14. It was actually written in response to a friend’s question one day – “How do you create community?”