Creating Community

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 so just jump in. Don’t sit around whining – just put it out there and see what it plants.

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.



12 Replies to “Creating Community”

  1. I've been getting to know New Westminster over the past year and a half, after having gone there only two or three times over the course of 17 years living in Vancouver. Not all its charms are immediately obvious, but there's plenty to discover by accident or by recommendation. When I first visited New Westminster in the mid-90s it looked very down-at-heel to me. I'm excited to see all the changes and growth that are taking place now; it feels like New West is on the upswing.

    My great-grandparents came to New Westminster from Ontario in the 1870s when the railroad was extended to British Columbia, and my great-grandfather had a business on Columbia Street before they relocated to Vancouver after the fire. I've been meaning to visit the Archives and to explore my family's New West roots in more depth.

    Thanks for the post! I enjoy learning more about your very interesting and historical city.
    My recent post Aging Naturally

  2. "I have made a conscious decision to be involved in creating the community I live in." Beautifully said Jen. Thank you for this honest and thought-provoking guide to community building and neighborly living. I think I'll just join you on your humble quest–no matter where in the world I go.

  3. I enjoyed your interpretation of what community is, but I don't agree that your creating it, it's been there all along, at some point you decided to contribute to it. I would imagine in the pioneering days of New Westminster the community was much more close knit, everyone depended on each other for the necessities of life – especially through times of hardship – now its a form of recreation.

    Another key ingredient I think you skimmed over is the City, who provide the spaces us citizens use to congregate, and the amenities we use for recreation. I think the city has some GREAT people working the front, I'm sure many insiders feel like they're 'doing time' having to deal with political agendas and the demands of some citizens !

    After all, it's the City who set the standards of a community, and I think people who complain play a VITAL role, challenging to raise neighbourhood standards and a check of those representing the community.

  4. Jen, well said! My wife Kathleen was born in New West and has fond memories of the place. I really like the block party idea. I'm also really glad that you didn't relegate responsibility to anyone else but you. We all have to take personal action to make our own difference.
    And as Kathleen says to me all the time, "Those who give also receive."
    But I also believe that infrastructure and design make a huge difference to a community feel, too. For example, in the 1980s and '90s, the typical BC box house was built with a huge double-car garage out front, with a short driveway and a narrow path around to the "front" door. But in reality, in our car-dependent age, the real front door was the garage doors. People drive home from work, hit the garage door opener, drive in and and that's all you ever see of them. If they get their lawns cut by a lawn care company, you will never meet those neighbours.
    Contrast that with the older (and sometimes newer) style of house with a large, covered front deck, with wide stairs to the deck and front door, and a garage out back or at the side, if there was one at all. That style of house just begs you to sit on your front porch, which means you'll be in sight of your neighbours.
    We're moving, and we're looking for a house just like that. They're hard to find!

    1. Come to Queensborough! Port Royal and Thompson's Landing both feature the front porches you crave. And they do work the way you'd hope, encouraging neighbours to chat with one another.

  5. True that Grant.

    When we bought our current house (uh… sorry, when the Bank decided to let us live in our current house for a down payment and a life of servitude) it faced the street through a 7’ cedar hedge. We decided on day 1 that the hedge had to go.

    We don’t have a veranda out front, but we have turned half of our front yard into a vegetable garden, and a remarkable thing happened. Every time I go out there to pull weeds, sow rows, put down compost, spritz the aphids or pick lettuce, people walking by stop and talk. They compliment my sunflowers or my cucumbers (not much to compliment this year), a lot of older people comment that everyone used to have gardens in the “good old days”. Some share tips, some ask questions, but most importantly, they stop to talk. Complete strangers, walking the streets of New West, just chatting like neighbors. People meeting people.

    1. That's amazing, isn't it? We're having a similar experience with our front yard (and our back too – we're on the corner of an alley) and everyone wants to chat about the landscaping we're working on. It's so nice that people are doing that.

  6. Very true Grant,
    Jen and I used to live in Vancouver, near 29th and Cambie, and it was a gost-town in that neighbourhood as people drove in/out of their garages and that was all we would see of them. We would walk our dog around the neighbourhood and wouldn't see a soul.
    We eventually learned that if we'd cross the street to QE Park, it was nothing but families having BBQ's, kids at the duck pond or weddings up near the conservatory.

    What I love about New West is that no matter where you live, even down by the Quay, people are 'out-n-about' and very easy to approach.

  7. What I absolutely LOVE about New West is that change is possible! Given everyone's busy schedule, people will only work for a community project if they see that progress is possible and that projects can succeed within a reasonable amount of time. And in New West, this is happily the case (just try to influence, for instance, Burnaby's cycling infrastructure…oof…excercise in futility, that). Here, City Hall is small enough that you can get to know the staff. Our politicians listen and are active, you can get to know them too. Thankfully, we are mostly free of "slates" or "parties", in our civic elections. We have "resident's associations", which funnel local concerns to the City very effectively (Burnaby and Vancouver do not have these!). There are advisory committees that really do influence decisions made in Council. We have local newspapers that people actually read, and whose editors are plugged in to the community. And of course, we have a fantastic blog right here where people meet virtually to exchange views and help to effect change.

    1. Ask the people who didn't want 125 Columbia, ask the people who live in Sapperton do the politicians listen? Active hmmm when it comes to attending socials? Yes indeed they don't have a problem taking money from businesses for parking meters on Sunday and redistributing it to day care facilities. Nor do they have a problem letting our beloved Canada Games pool go down hill or mess up Moody Park pool. Ask the Resident Associations if they like to pay for meeting space insurance and when was the last time city council asked for a meeting. Ask the people in Queensborough if they like the new bike lanes. While your there ask them if they like the price on the addition to Queensborough center or if the ditches have been filled in. Ask Harper, Cote, McEvoy, Williams and yes our Mayor about District Labour slates and the NDP. While your at it ask McIntosh and Osterman about slates. Don't bother with the school board it's just a nightmare – we still don't have our schools built! Of coarse the staff are friendly at city hall because most don't live here. You know there are plenty of good things but why is everyone on this blog so intent on ignoring the little things that annoy most of us this is what makes life in New Westminster real!

      1. I wouldn't say I am intent on ignoring the little things that annoy. I just personally don't create anonymous identities online to whine and complain. Online, I prefer to use my real name and a real email address and try to remain positive. If I have a complaint, I take it offline and try to get it solved.

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