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On being a better neighbour

Neighbours Day Aotearoa, the annual celebration of neighbourhoods and the power of human connection, starts this weekend. It’s a timely reminder of the big rewards that can come from small gestures, writes Sarah Lang.

I have a confession to make. I don’t know the names of my next-door neighbours on the left-hand side. I do know the elderly lady who lives on our right is called Ellie. When we moved in six years ago, Ellie brought baking around a few times, but she talks at great length – and my life is busy – so I never reciprocated, although I meant to. There’s been no chance to chat over the fence given neither of us use our weed-ridden ‘backyards’ (basically, tiny chunks of a cliff), plus there’s no front yard (both our homes end where the pavement starts).

The shell of a house to our left – where no one lived for years following a fire – is now being rented by a Chinese couple who speak little English, and grow a few vegetables on the cliff. I know, I should knock on their door carrying some cake.

Right, I’ve done a quick count. Turns out I only know the names of 14 people on my street: Ellie, the couple who run community group Mount Cook Mobilised!, their friends Karen and Dave, the builder down the road, and two families who also have small children. That’s an E for effort, given my street has 90-odd dwellings, some divided into flats. I’m about to stretch my underused maths muscles: at a conservative estimate of 100 households, multiplied by the national average of 2.6 people per dwelling, there are around 260 people in my street that I don’t know (I’ll round that up to 300, given there’s a lot of student flats).

I’m not alone. Many of us don’t know our neighbours – especially if we drive from our garage to work then home again (I park on the road, and usually walk, so I don’t have that excuse). Statistics New Zealand research shows that nearly half of us feel we can’t turn to our neighbours for help. Recently, I considered asking Ellie if I could borrow a cup of sugar before my cake mix went funny, yet I drove to the supermarket instead.

But I’ve actually got to know some neighbours at my ‘local’: The Preservatorium Café and Cannery on Webb Street (near the far end of Cuba Street). I love its retro décor, but that’s not the only reason I stop in maybe twice a week.

Sarah Lang and her son at her local cafe, Wellington’s Preservatorium (supplied)

In the New Yorker recently, Adam Gopnik wrote about cafés as essential social institutions. “The coffeehouses and salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment – a caffeinated pathway out of clan society into cosmopolitan society,” he wrote. Café culture then spread through European cities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 21st-century Wellington, cafés don’t foment political and social change like they did in 17th- or 18th -century Vienna or Warsaw. But, for many New Zealanders, a café is more than just a place to grab a coffee-and-muffin special. Like pubs in England – think Coronation Street’s Rovers Return – many New Zealand cafés are what’s known as a ‘third space’ (after the home and the workplace). It’s just that a flat white replaces a G&T.

Preservatorium is frequented by all sorts: road workers wearing hi-vis vests, mums wearing baby slings, self-employed professionals typing away on laptops. I have an office in town but as I’m self-employed, without any colleagues, I enjoy some interaction. The former proprietor, Pete, would often ask about my day, and joke about my embarrassingly finicky coffee order: soy decaf flat white. (I know, I know.)

When I started coming in on Tuesdays or Thursdays (‘Mummy days’) with my baby – who is now four – the cuteness factor was often an icebreaker. Preservatorium regulars often come over to talk about or to him. I’ve chatted most to John McDonald, 70, whose conversation is a counterbalance to my lefty professional circle (and whose views have mellowed over the years). The recently retired builder has been coming here about three times a week for four years, usually to meet the same friend.

McDonald’s three children have boomeranged in and out of his home as adults, but he now lives alone. “It’s easy to become isolated – and because I’m outgoing and a bit eccentric, I need the company I get here. It’s also nice to talk to intelligent people you’d never otherwise meet. Community isn’t about bricks and mortar. It’s about family, friends, neighbours.”


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Another regular is a thin, largely blind woman who uses a cane, lives in a council flat, and is always remarkably chipper. I get the feeling the occasional cup of coffee is her only treat. When she had open-heart surgery, McDonald visited her and updated other Preservatorium regulars on her progress. She recovered well.

Then there’s the bookish retiree who arrives bang on 9am every morning, and reads the newspaper front to back. I once told her that I write for magazines, so once a month she graciously presents me with the latest Reader’s Digest. It’s too awkward now to tell her I don’t read that magazine.

I’ll be sure to drop by Preservatorium on Neighbours Day Aotearoa (it should probably be renamed Neighbours Week, given it runs from 22 to 31 March – most events happen next weekend, 30 – 31 March). But my husband, son and I are also inviting some neighbours from our street over for coffee and cake. See neighboursday.org.nz for events and activities in your area, or to find resources to create a last-minute event. In the dark days we’ve experienced since the Christchurch shootings, many of us are thinking more about being part of a community – and about what makes a community – and it’s not always a Facebook group. At a time like this, it’s worth reaching out to your neighbours.

Postscript: Since I wrote this piece, my neighbour Ellie died. I wish I’d asked for that cup of sugar.


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