Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: In the neighbourhood


Upon moving house, Greg Dixon discovers what he didn’t know he’d been missing.

In my new street, people wave; complete strangers walking along the street say 'hello'. Photo / Dean Purcell
In my new street, people wave; complete strangers walking along the street say 'hello'. Photo / Dean Purcell

A strange thing happened to me when I was putting out the rubbish not so long ago. As I wheeled the bin to the grass verge, I looked up to see the neighbour across the road doing the same thing. At the same moment he looked up too, spotting me in the crisp, early-evening dark as he too positioned his bin. And then it happened. He waved.

For the last three years I lived cheek-by-jowl with, on one side, various noisy renters and, on the other, an obnoxious family with an ongoing DIY fixation. The only kind of wave you could expect from either side there - and this went both ways - was a two-fingered one.

So I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing - particularly since this wave happened just the day after I'd moved in to my new neighbourhood. It took me a long second to realise my new neighbour was waving at me and that I should, you know, wave back.

It's not that I'd never had friendly neighbours or been friendly with neighbours before - in our old street, for example, the family two doors up were and are lovely people and there was a bloke across the road who is a quiet, decent fellow - it's just that in the 15 years that I lived in the old street it had become progressively and incrementally less neighbourly as the good people moved out.

Mostly - at least at the beginning of the street's metamorphosis - it didn't seem to matter. The house was a warm haven in winter and the garden a cool, green retreat in summer.

Three years ago I sung our little home's praises in Canvas. I wrote of happiness dwelling in the bed of rich scarlet day lilies out front; of wet Sundays on the couch with our dear departed cat; of the clack and gabble of rain on the tin roof; and in fantails darting and squeaking in the manuka trees. I wrote, too, that we wished to live there until we died.
But I spoke too soon. Beyond the borders of our sanctuary, the baboons had started babbling and the renters raving.

Moving can be a trauma. There is always the muddle of packing, the drama of moving day, the confusion of cancelling services here and putting on services there. There is the uncertainly, the chaos and cost. It's stressful. But mainly it's just tedious and unbelievably time-consuming.

In the end, despite my streaming head cold, the move went as smoothly as one could hope - and then the journey back in time, to an Auckland I didn't know existed anymore, began.

The new house was a revelation, certainly. There is the hour-by-hour spectacle of the sky between us and the Waitakeres (we have a wonderful view north and west); there is the space and light; the thrill of seeing something I'd never seen in Auckland before, a kingfisher in the garden; there is the simple pleasure of lighting a fire; there is the blissful peace and quiet.

Yet it was what we have begun discovering beyond the borders of our new sanctuary that made us realise the move was about more than, well, moving from one place to another. We have moved from a street to a neighbourhood.

In space of a month we have welcomed by those who live next door to us, behind us and those who live across the road. We have exchanged numbers and been offered free firewood. We have been told about the wonderful street party that happens every summer where they close off the top of the road and have a barbecue.

In my new street, people wave; complete strangers walking along the street say hello; there is a sense of community that goes beyond anything I can remember since the place I lived in my teens.

Is this remarkable? Well it is to me. Is it important? Well it is to me too.

The last few years in particular have taught me what living in a place that has little sense of community is like. Living near rental properties doesn't help because people renting aren't necessarily going to hang around long enough to have an investment in a neighbourhood, so a sense of community comes a distant second to sitting outside drinking with mates and having to shout your inanities because the stereo is turned up loud.

Mind you the other neighbours' single contribution to the neighbourhood was by way of making a lot of pointless racket and by starting but never finishing DIY projects, thus making their house an eyesore, one that can probably be seen from space. So, of course, neighbours owning their own houses doesn't necessarily mean they have a sense of neighbourliness either.

A good and functioning neighbourhood isn't a matter of its cast of characters but a matter of the fraternity that the cast feels toward each other.

You know things aren't what they were in the country's neighbourhoods when someone has to organise a special, annual meet-your-street day using a "community-driven social marketing campaign".

The inaugural national Neighbours Day Aotearoa was held last year following the success of Auckland Neighbours Day, which started in 2009. If you - and your neighbours, of course - want to join in, there's another NDA next March.

So it seems my old street isn't the only place suffering from a decline in civility and community. According to one of the organisers of NDA, "belonging to a positive community is one of our most basic needs and is what people say is part of being Kiwi but that many say has been lost in recent years ... We know that people who know their neighbours feel safer at home, enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing, and feel more able to contribute to their community."

And, I would add, to enjoy and contribute to a bit of peace and quiet, a sense that you're among friends and the feeling that, whatever else, the place you live isn't just a sanctuary but a sanctuary within a wider haven.

It's early days yet in my new neighbourhood. But as I walked home the other night from the train, with the quiet streets scented by wood fires and wet leaves, I felt, after a few years in the wilderness, that I was at last coming home.

- NZ Herald

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Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. He has been deputy editor of Canvas since 2008 and has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

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