Archive for ‘Daily Life’

April 29, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 in the neighbourhood

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Fe...

Image via Wikipedia

A few good watches for people interested in the topic of community and neighbourhoods at this year’s Hot Docs film festival:

  • The Interrupters: looks at three former gang members who work now to stop violence when it erupts. The focus of earlier magazine articles, this Chicago program has been captured by Director Steve James, who did Hoop Dreams.
  • Bury the Hatchet: explores one Louisiana’s perseverance in maintaining its Mardi Gras traditions rooted in the history of its Aboriginal and Black residents.
  • Battle for Brooklyn: tells the story of a condo owner who has to fight to preserve his neighbourhood from developers.
  • Foreign Parts: is about another fight for a New York City neighbourhood. This time the focus for gentrifying forces is an industrial zone.
  • Living Skin: focuses on the boys in one Egyptian neighbourhood who work in the city’s tanneries.
  • St Henri, the 26th of August: celebrates Montreal’s working class neighbourhood. Two days, decades apart, and 16 film-makers.
January 10, 2011

Canadian immigrants, housing and social relationships

A few years ago, Dr. Sutama Ghosh presented the results of her freshly minted thesis at a CERIS seminar on the housing of 30 Bangladeshi immigrant families in three Toronto neighbourhoods. She described one highrise tower she visited where children ran through the apartments of their neighbours, giggling, peeking into the fridge, and playing. Doors to the hallway were unlocked so that the children could have free-run. Mothers watched over each other’s children or visited in the laundry rooms. The community had created a “vertical neighbourhood” in the same way that suburban children might scamper through a set of backyards. Ghosh also described other families living in buildings where they were isolated, walled-off and alone. These apartment buildings, where many new immigrants first settle are, as she phrased it, “vertical neighbourhoods” and “spaces of hope and despair.”

Short and tall

Image by Loozrboy via Flica a few years ago kr

It’s a timely topic because later this week, United Way Toronto should be releasing an in-depth study looking at Torontonians who live in high-rise towers across the city, their well-being, their challenges and their communities.

Canadian geography professors, Brian Ray and Valerie Preston have also looked at the social isolation immigrants and found that building form is vital in explaining how connected immigrants are to their communities. Where Ghosh found hope, Ray and Preston found that isolation was more common, de-bunking the myth that immigrants live in inward-focused ethnic enclaves.

Poor social integration, if it is indeed a problem, may be much more a function of housing than the ethnocultural composition of neighbourhoods.

Those who rented or lived in apartment buildings were less likely to know their neighbours than other immigrants or Canadian-born because the places they lived did not necessarily provide the spaces to meet others. The ability to meet through chance encounters offered in “horizontal neighbourhoods,” ones with sidewalks and nearby stores, is often limited in apartment buildings. Neighbours may see each other in mailrooms or elevator rides. Building lobbies commonly lack a place to sit and socialize.

In a nice contrast, the new buildings in Regent Park have been designed to include common bulletin boards, laundromats with nearby play areas, rooftop garden plots and exercise and party rooms, normally a feature of condo buildings.

However, Ray and Preston also found that immigrants who lived in apartment buildings were just as likely as others to:

  • express a sense of belonging, even through the fleeting interactions with their neighbours, and
  • to have a majority of friends from other ethnic groups, a telling rebuttal to the idea that diversity dilutes trust in others.

They concluded that more thoughtful building designs and public policy would improve the social isolation that many immigrants — and apartment–dwellers — experience, making better neighbours.

Ray also be presents later this week at York University CERIS seminar on a related topic. It’s going to be a good week.

My thanks to blogger Kevin Harris, Neighbourhoods, for referring the Ray, Preston article to me.

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December 1, 2010

How scared should we be about bed bugs?

Adult bed bug, Cimex lectularius

Image via Wikipedia

Knowing I work at WoodGreen Community Services, which has been on the forefront of the bedbug issue for a while, a friend asked me how nervous she should be about going to a movie theatre that night.

Her fear sprang from the furor causes when a tweet wrongly accused Scotiabank Theatre of harbouring bed bugs and the widespread media coverage how the bugs are sweeping Manhattan’s toniest locations.

“Or how about subways and street cars?” she asked.

“Go,” I said. “If you’re nervous, strip off when you get home, bag your clothes and then launder and dry them.”

We are not (yet) at the point you have to stop going out into public spaces.

Some activities are riskier, such as

  • moving residences (especially if it’s into an apartment building — so make sure to ask),
  • travelling (check those head boards and mattress seams), or
  • picking up second-hand furniture off the street (no more boulevard shopping).

I still trust the Toronto Transit Commission – especially safe in the winter when most of its vehicles sit outside overnight, freezing. And I think movie theatres – and other entertainment venues – were so shaken by the Twitter furor, that I expect discreet inspections are done regularly.

The good news, this week, was the attention that bed bugs generated at the municipal and provincial levels. If we manage our own surroundings cautiously and if coordinated and proactive actions are taken, bed bugs will be well-managed.

A community bed bug committee, composed of residents, tenant associations, non-profits, government reps and broader networks recently adopted a “Bedbug Mani-pest-o” outlining five key points:

  1. Build a public education campaign to raise awareness on the rising incidence of bed bug infestations, the methods of dealing with them and to de-stigmatize bed bugs
  2. Establish standard protocols for treatment of bed bugs
  3. Develop and promote a consistent community response that includes funds to support vulnerable populations to reduce financial barriers to eradicate bed bugs
  4. Conduct widespread monitoring of bed bug incidences across the Province
  5. Draft and enact legislative policies that support quick and effective responses to bed bugs

Liberal M.P.P. Mike Colle has taken almost all of these and built them into his recommendations to the province, only shying away from the legislative piece.

N.D.P. Cheri DiNovo has introduced a bill to license landlords.

The Toronto Board of Health and the City of Toronto are both lobbying for more resources, arguing that early interventions will ensure bed bugs don’t spread further.

Solutions are emerging.

For the moment, we can sleep tight. Just don’t let the bed bugs bite.

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November 17, 2010

Parking signs, parking tickets, pah!

Hours for No Parking & Parking on a Meter

Parking signs drive me crazy. And, admittedly, as they say on Twitter, this is a #firstworldproblem. Still, I’m going to rant for a minute.

I’m a successful graduate of my high school, a college and two universities, and yet I gather with groups of my neighbours to study the parking signs in our neighbourhood, deciding when we should be moving our cars to the other side of the street or whether dinner guests really do have to leave within an hour.

Three signs

No Stopping obscured by parking sign

When I venture out into other neighbourhoods, where I may not find such friendly guidance, I run the risk of tickets, solo. Tonight, on a rainy night, I rushed down to Union Station to pick up my sister. I cooed to her that I had found a place to park, where at this late hour, I didn’t even have to pay the meter. We returned to a ticket – the area is a No Standing zone between 6 p.m. and midnight. That sign was obscured behind the larger sign commanding payment at the meter during the day. The row of us all had tickets. A quick Google search showed others had been hit the same way (and taken better pictures). Another fishing pond for tickets. Life in the big city, no?

A clump of signs

Parking meter under No Standing signs

My area in front of my workplace is particularly bad. There a parking meter sits under a set of signs that, if studied, reveal that, anywhere to the west of the meter, the exact direction in which it faces, it is a No Stopping zone every week day. However you have to read all four signs to learn that. Colleagues have stood there and debated with people as to whether park was allowed there. Close to $400 later, parking ticket in hand, they believe.

It’s rough out there. I found one travel website which gave this precaution about parking in Toronto — I should have listened:

PRECAUTIONS

If you are driving your own vehicle or a rental around Toronto, be very careful where you park. We found the parking signs on the streets to be a bit confusing, so opted to park in garages, which was much more costly.

I have full respect of the law. I just want/need to be able to understand it, if I am going to obey it.

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August 25, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Community Space

This is a long-delayed follow-up to some earlier posts on the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy which is currently under development and will measure community resources in neighbourhoods across the city.

Bonnie Green writes in the recent issue of the Agora Foundation’s The Philanthropist about the tale of two non-profit organizations in search of program space in their local communities. The article, Creating Social Space in the New Urban Landscape, captures the challenge many non-profit organizations and neighbourhoods face: a lack of community space.

Good neighbourhoods need more than services; they need the space to deliver these community programs and places where community can gather. Much of the challenge of delivering service in Toronto’s “inner suburbs” has been one of carving program space out of basements and strip malls in order to bring community services to local residents. These community spaces are the places where literacy and health programs are found, where sports leagues and seniors’ groups run, where we can access the services we need or where we organize and work with others, from and for our communities.

Good neighbourhoods also need places where neighbours can meet each other, spaces like front porches, school yards and parks, corner stores, coffee shops, places of worship, recreation centres, school yards, dog runs, and even sidewalks. These are the spaces where we can go, outside of our homes and work, where we can meet each other on neutral territory.

Academics describe both these kinds of community gathering spots as third places, and maintain that they are vital to the social fabric of a neighbourhood.

The website Cooltown Studios describes such places this way:

If you aren’t motivated to leave home or your workplace, chances are you don’t live around too many successful third places.

So, it makes great sense that the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy (CSP) proposes to use these third places as an indicator of the strength of the community support system within a city neighbourhood, combining it with two other structural components: the presence of community organizations, and funding.

The CSP’s definition of community space will measure “space for residents, informal groups, community-based organizations; meetings, programs, administration; multi-purpose [and] dedicated space.”

Two types of  measurable spaces have been identified: community meeting space, which allows informal and grassroots interactions, and community program space, which is more likely to be booked and permitted for service delivery.

Similar to the work of the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, the measure could also include the percentage of the population with one kilometre of meeting space, such as in libraries, recreation centres, and community-based organizations.

However, the CSP is more than an inventory of local resources. In consultation with community, city staff are exploring the “when is enough, enough” question to answer what benchmarks would work: how much space is needed in a neighbourhood and what functions does it need to fill? How do the needs of various neighbours differ? What’s the baseline requirement for any neighbourhood?

Not enough research — or policy-wrangling — has been done to determine these answers yet, so the early stages of the CSP are more likely to provide an effective way of comparing Toronto neighbourhoods to each other. Now, thanks to the CSP, that conversation will have a good evidence base.

August 15, 2010

It’s always something: Life and death on a city block

 

The man across the street from me died recently. He is the twelfth death that I can remember on the block during the time I have lived here.

The Dalai Lama once said to remember that whenever you enter a room with others, there is always pain somewhere in the room. This is my remembrance of pain on the street, my own included. It’s perhaps a macabre exercise but one that underscores the thickness of our neighbourhoods.

When I lead Jane’s Walks in the neighbourhood, we fly through the neighbourhood. This tour will pause much more frequently and cover little more than a city block.

The only people I know who have gotten mugged in my neighbourhood both got mugged at the underpass to the railway tracks at the top of the street. And the restaurant at the other end is nicknamed the Kick & Stab.  This is some of what has happened in the spaces between these two places:

  • A corner brick house was built by a man during WWI. The woman who lived in it promised payment when her husband returned. Lost is the reason why, but the builder was never paid. His daughter bullied the new little girl who moved in after that – bullying passed on generationally, and spatially.
  • Further south is the family that raised a crowd of children, one they lost when he was eleven. Four neighbourhood boys had found an open sewer grate and crawled down for an adventure. What they found was a pocket of deadly gas. Only the two quickest boys were able to climb out. The others succumbed. His father bankrupted himself, suing the City for neglect.
  • Walking again south, we come to the house where five-year-old Jeffrey died with his grandparents after his young parents were found incompetent. However, his grandmother, barely better equipped, became overwhelmed. The testimony at the trial which I remember is how one of the neighbourhood mums, a woman I knew by sight from the local school ground, visited one day and found Jeffrey’s grandmother giving him a bath in the basement. The grandmother told our neighbour she didn’t know if she could manage. Within months, the weight of a toddler, 21 pound Jeffrey died of neglect and septic shock. A new, happy family lives behind those walls now, a little girl, who knows of him, in the bedroom where Jeffrey had been locked. It overlooks our backyards.
  • Turning right, here is where Louie ran a store for years, robbed just as frequently. His face was always relieved when he saw you were a customer. He’s gone now, and the owners of the store around the block have bought a big dog. Their faces are perpetually nervous too.
  • Here an old man found in his basement apartment, not having the strength to walk out on his own, relying on his neighbours to fetch groceries. The police found him when there was a fire in the building.
  • Here the brother and sister, grown, the patterns set when they were young. He was suspended, then expelled, from the local grade school. She lured into trading her young sexuality for favours.
  • Here the man who didn’t see his family for fifteen years until he was able to save enough for them to emigrate,  his toddler turned to a teenager.
  • And here the mother who went mad. And recovered. Sort of.
  • Here the man who has depression who won’t tell anyone. His wife miscarried, too.
  • Here the man so alienated from his family that he didn’t attend the funeral of his disabled son.
  • Here the brother who became a drug addict and then committed suicide. His father beat his mother.
  • Here the house that was filled with young people, lost to the world. They burned the house down setting off fire crackers in the waste can. One of them, panicked, rushed to the second floor porch, certain she was trapped, waiting for the fire trucks. Her friends, rushing out to the front sidewalk, chanted, “Jump, jump, jump.” Two households were burned out, neither covered by insurance.
  • Here the man who doesn’t talk to others. He’s in the hospital a lot.
  • Here the elderly mother whose dutiful daughter stayed close until she met a man who took her money. When the mother objected, they found a long-term home for her.
  • Here the woman who moved here with a draft dodger and had a beautiful child. But he lives on the streets now.
  • Here the daughter with special needs so carefully tended because her friendliness makes her vulnerable.
  • Here the daughter who died of cancer in her early 20’s.
  • Here the man who nursed his lover through the final stages of AIDS. Now, a couple who lost a child unborn.
  • Here the man who beat his wife until she left. His grown sons visit sometimes.
  • Here the woman and two children who emigrated here, to follow her husband, then to find they had no status. Her husband beat her too. She left him, and met a woman, a white Canadian who stepped in where her husband left off, we didn’t like her. The mother was almost deported, but neighbours put up the surety, testified on her behalf. The Canadian woman moved her away from this neighbourhood. The last we heard, she was homeless and mad. We don’t know what happened to the children. Now there, a women whose time is occupied with her suicidal sister.
  • Here the husband who was so cheap he wouldn’t let his wife have a visitor over for tea because electricity and tea bags cost money.
  • Here a four-year-old child lived, her Mum her only support, a woman who too became addicted. The neighbours each took turns watching over the child, feeding her, until her grandmother arrived months later and set things straight. I saw her grown and well.
  • Here, two bad landlords.
  • Here the smoker who died of lung cancer, saying, “I feel so stupid. I’m scared.”
  • Here the man who never told his family he is gay. But they never visit.
  • Here the partner who strayed, had a child with another woman, then left.
  • Here another straying man, whose lover left him. His wife wouldn’t take him back. And, then, a woman with a hundred friends who was self-conscious she was alone in life, single.
  • Here a father who swears his son is slow because of an undetected gas leak.
  • Here the couple who, when they moved, left pictures drawn on the wall of the wife having sex with their labrador dog.
  • Here the father who lost his legs and then his life to diabetes. An adult son also died. His wife had bottles delivered regularly to her home until she was put in housing. She’s better now. Then, a tenant who never worked after a construction accident.
  • Here the two half-brothers who lived and aged together for more than 3 decades, the older one passed away first, his brother’s name on his lips, his brother’s arms around him.
  • Here, another alcoholic and a tenant, in the basement, who couldn’t live peaceably with her partner.
  • Here the family that faced with dread that the daughter had inherited the mother’s disease, the men stood stalwart by these wives, only grouching about parking or snow removal.
  • Here the family who bought a home, a dream they could just afford, but it burned down early one morning, grandmother escaping with grandchildren, because the little boy who lived in the basement apartment found some matches. They didn’t have insurance either.
  • Here the mother who shepherded her two sons to school everyday, past her ex-mother-in-law, who would speak to none of them.
  • Here the woman, schizophrenic, who has managed through medication and personal strength and neighbourliness, to raise her child well.

There’s more, there’s always more, but that’s enough. As my neighbour June would sum up such events, “It’s always something on [our street].”

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August 10, 2010

Sidewalk exchanges

When the small piano on my front porch begins to tinkle, I know a neighbourhood toddler has ventured up from the sidewalk, tired parent in tow. I keep it there just for that. In the winter, we meet out there when we are shovelling. Or we see each other early in the morning when we are running out with our smelly green bins. Clusters of us appear along the street as we return from our workday, visiting those already on their porch.

This, like any neighbourhood, is a neighbourhood where our sidewalks are important.

Our sidewalks also serve a trading function. Old bookshelves, dishes and lamps are regularly laid out well before garbage day in the neighbourhood for perusal and collection by others.  I recently met a new neighbour and realized I had her discarded lamp in my living room. (In my first house, most of the furniture “free-cycled.” My partner and I even learned the garbage collection schedule of several of the upscale areas around us—sadly, something I would be less likely to do now with the urban spread of bed bugs.)

These outdoor activities have grown out of the density of our neighbourhood where we live cheek by porch, exchanges which occur by design, by happenstance, by tradition and by local culture. They have made our neighbourhood a better place to be.

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Designed by Douglas ...

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Image via Wikipedia

Word now from Portland, Oregon, where a few neighbourhoods have formalized the opportunities for these daily communal interactions, including setting up a local outdoor tea cart and building neighbourhood “sharing posts.” Mike Lanza at Playborhood.com posted  on the this development after he took a trip to the west coast.  When Communities take over their own streets includes pictures of these great communal creations. Read it to enjoy!

Using the same creative approach, Neighbourhoods blogger Kevin Harris was one of the initiators of  a new, fun Facebook group called 50 ways to meet your neighbours (“Give a nod on the bud, Gus”). The group sprang out of a meeting Harris attended and some recent research he described that showed that Brits are shy about meeting one another.

Sounds familiar. Sidewalks are a low-risk way for us all to get to enjoy a little musical (or other form of) interchange.

June 12, 2010

Cynthia’s Walks

On Cynthia’s passing: It was peaceful. She was surrounded by family. And it was too soon. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her memorial has been set for September 11th, 1 p.m. at St. John Norway.

She had a long stride, so she moved fast. It’s the way I remember Cynthia, arms swinging, backpack on one shoulder.

Neighbours at the 2009 Terry Fox Walk

Cynthia’s wearing her Breast Cancer T-shirt on the Terry Fox Walk. We were walking for another dear neighbour.

We walked a lot, me less eagerly, hoping instead to sit on her couch, she striding ahead, explaining that she couldn’t walk slowly. There were the shopping trips, brisk evening walks with other neighbours, and longer fundraising walks. Always walking.

When Cynthia heard about the first Jane’s Walk, she said, “We should lead one in our neighbourhood.” She had already talked to the head of a local community agency. I was working, at the time, at United Way Toronto on issues around building strong communities. But, as a researcher, stepping out in front was not my first inclination, so I demurred, offering only to speak at one of the stops. That first walk became Ashbridges to Little India. The next year, Cynthia and I led a group of forty through a torrential rain, stopping at the Mahar Restaurant for chai and samosas that Cynthia had arranged through the local BIA.

Cynthia Brouse, award-winning magazine writer, editor and my friend and neighbour for nearly fifteen years, I was proudest of a Toronto Life piece for which she hadn’t won an award: Indian Summer, the story of living in our east-end neighbourhood. (She was kind enough to omit the story of our first meeting, when, toddlers in tow, I had brushed her off and, instead, she included a quixotic story about my son and I dancing with a sparkler. And about how “dense, multiplex networks” function.)

Last year, our Greenwood Coxwell walk gained some profile, being written up by a Globe columnist, but Cynthia wasn’t well enough to lead the walk again with me. Her breast cancer had returned. Another neighbour, a historian, stepped in graciously to help, and Cynthia came to listen this time, her mother pushing her wheelchair.

However this year, within days of the annual walk, Cynthia said good-bye to her home and, for the last time, has been admitted to hospital.

Still, we talked about this thing we had joined together, this celebration of neighbourhoods, and the convergent theme of neighbourliness. I told her how this year the walk had grown again. Crazily, I had decided to do two walks, a reprise of our earlier ones and a new one I had thought up. And, crazily, two new walks had sprung up in the neighbourhood, led by others!  (The media coverage also grew with a Spacing radio podcasts of my walk and of Jane Farrow’s east end tour and also a CBC interview on Fresh Air about Jane’s Walks across the province which profiled our neighbourhood.) Our conversations had taken a life of themselves.

These ideas of local community, social networks, neighbouring, how we manage, or how we come to rely on each other, these themes were what Cynthia and I considered, continuously, until the end.

Earlier this spring, when things looked pretty gloomy, I joked with Cynthia, “I’ve had enough of sick and dying neighbours.”

Looking at me steadily, she said, “You will be happy again.”

Now, I remember that, and I imagine her offering me a cupcake to enjoy — because we can always walk it off.

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May 9, 2010

East end history re-discovered

Three delightful pieces of history collected on the recent Jane’s Walks in the Greenwood Coxwell Corridor (Little India) worth posting:

1. Footage of a soccer game in 1930s at the Ulster stadium, formerly located east of Greenwood and south of Gerrard St. East:

The Toronto Ulster United versus the Rangers.

Apparently the stadium was behind the Ulster Arms (nicknamed the Empty Arms by locals), for about 20 years and torn down after the war to build housing. There had been a football field and dog racing track too.

This picture from the Toronto Archives of 1940s Leslieville shows a racetrack along the very eastern edge of the photography, which is Highfield. (Dundas Avenue has not yet been extended through the neighbourhood, and a dirt path crosses what is now Greenwood Park.)

2. Denny Manchee collected this story from local historian, Joanne Doucette. Jane Farrow passed it on:

In the 1880s, real estate developers started marketing tiny lots 10 ft. wide to very poor people. The Ashbridges family owned the west side of Craven Road, which was still farmland, but the east side became this string of shacks called Shacktown. The developer was the same company that created Parkdale. Shacktown had the reputation of Regent Park did – drinking, guns, drugs. The shacks had no running water, no toilets, no police or fire protection, no schools.

Inevitably, people got sick from lack of sanitation (some died), so in 1909 the City took over that area and insisted people install running water. Many couldn’t afford it so they were evicted. Houses were condemned by the health authority and about half the people were turfed out. The fence was part of the cost the City had to pay when it expropriated a good portion of the west side to the street. It was erected to keep the riffraff away from the wealthier folk on the west. The street was named (rebranded!) Craven Road in 1923.

Joanne is a font of local lore and does a lot of guided walks for both the Toronto Field Naturalists and Lost Rivers.

3. The flat-roofed homes on the corner of Walpole and Woodfield Avenue were some of the first ones built in the neighbourhood and now house the fourth generation of the same family. The current residents explained that when their ancestors settled in the neighbourhood, the two brothers dug a hole in the ground, put sod over the top and stayed there until their homes were ready. Farm fields lay to the east, and Natives who worked the fields, lived in teepees to the west. They built many other homes in the neighbourhood, as well.

Also, the City of Toronto Archives has posted historic photos of Leslieville on Flicker.

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April 24, 2010

My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…

While some espouse the merits of a clothesline, I like laundromats. Stories about them stick in my mind.

Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. Describing this scene in her autobiography, Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragette, explained how community laundries were invariably a safer space where they had a legitimate right to gather.

Or, there is the kindergarten teacher who could not convince local families to visit the school. So she took a pile of books to the nearby residential building’s laundromat, sat down on a stool and began reading out loud. Drawn in, the children loved this reprieve from their long, dull waits, and families began to trust her. It’s a technique well-recognized in community development circles.

Even Jane Jacobs reflected this lesson in her critique of the “tower-in-a-park” style of public housing, according to author Alice Sparberg Alexiou. In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, Jacobs described the basement laundromats as the “heart” of the buildings, the only adult social area, lying in the bowels of the buildings. Laundry rooms are one of the few spaces with the buildings where tenants have any sort of extended contact.

Laundromats are fundamentally social places – third places, according to sociologist – places, outside our homes and workplaces, where we meet each other.

According to the New York Times, laundromats are becoming scarcer, as are many local businesses.

E.B. White once described the elements of his mid-century New York city neighbourhood:

no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar, a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen, a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drug store, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.

It was this commercial chaos which inspired Jane Jacobs, soon afterwards.

Jacobs joined the board of the Union Settlement Association, a New York neighbourhood house, after seeing the good work it did documenting the shifts in East Harlem as housing projects were introduced. One of Union Settlement’s social workers, Ellen Lurie, documented the effects in detail.

Lurie described the effect of the disappearance of local stores which had been razed,

Shopping, which was a time in which neighbours met, now is a long, impersonal, tiring business, especially with children in tow. (Alexiou, Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary, 2006 — a great book)

Canadian research is showing how, since the 1970s, grocery stores have been growing larger and more dispersed with urban environments, and because of restrictive covenants are not returning to urban neighbourhoods. We now have to go further to bigger stores to buy our food among strangers.

There is push-back. The call for walkable neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” The American Institute of Architects is even bringing this design sensibility to offices and seniors’ housing.

A walkable neighbourhood ensures two important ingredients of a strong community:

  • access to service, especially to those among us who cannot range far, such as seniors, families with young children, and low-income people, and
  • strengthened social connections which allow us to work together for a common good.

If, as Lewis Mumford said of suburbia, it is “a collective effort to lead a private life,” an urban neighbourhood is impoverished without its laundromats, coffee shops, corner stores, public libraries and other spaces where we meet each other.

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