Car Troubles and the Little Village I Live In

The other day, I happened to look out the window of my top-floor apartment and see that the gentleman living below me was fussing under the hood of his car, which was popped up and exposed to the humid August air. I immediately surmised that there were some mechanical problems with the vehicle, as he was maneuvering a series of official-looking instruments under the hood. Crowded around the gentleman from apartment #2 were several of my male neighbours – big, burly men for the most part, with looks of concern and support writ large on their features.

He was in distress. They were helping.

It is the kind of scene I find very natural after living for a year in this apartment, which overlooks a back lane way between Ottawa Street and Grenville Street. This back lane way is jealously guarded by all of us, and forms a quiet oasis away from the busy main streets we are forced to drive everyday. Children play along this lane way. Dogs circulate and sniff each other here, with and without their owners in tow. Mechanical failures are fixed together as a joint effort.

Whether you share green space (as above) or a lane way, knowing your neighbours is fun and healthy!

I know that there are suburban streets where people become friendly with each other, and host cozy barbecues while the kids play ‘tag’ and ‘cops ‘n’ robbers’ with each other. However, popularized portrayals of Bad Neighbours tend to dominate our discourse of suburban turf wars. I grew up playing with the neighbourhood kids, but as far as I recall my family wasn’t overly chummy with the rest of the block.

In a Jane Jacobs-kind of way, the neighbours that surround my current apartment are watching out for each other. I was once offered a ride from the family immediately across from my apartment because they’d noticed I was having car problems. In addition, we also have to perform very delicate and elaborate driving rituals to maneuver into our separate parking spaces; although the little lane way is the artery which connects all of us, its capacity is quite limited. The urban form dictates our interactions with each other – our space is shared, and privacy is non-existent.

Within this little village that has formed around a single lane way, we each of us find our own unique ways to add to the local colour. Hand-made signs (“Children playing. 5 km/hr speed limit”) enforce our ownership of the lane way, and our desire to have freedom within the space. One family doles out loads of bird seed and unused bread crumbs to squirrels and birds, attracting a cacophony that perches on shed tops and fence posts. In the winter, one resident uses creative methods (an ATV) to relocate unwanted snow.

My feeling of living in a village here is perhaps enhanced by the fact that my uncle lives just around the corner, and I can almost see the top of his house from my balcony. I know each inch of road surrounding my little village intimately from frequent walks and bike outings. I am ‘in place’ and it is my place.

I was strongly reminded of the cohesive nature of this little village, bonded together by a single lane way, when I saw my neighbours assisting each other with car troubles. Perhaps I’m being overly romantic about the place – there are times when the habits of watching each other and sharing space feel restrictive and undesirable – but at that moment it looked like a wonderful boon. I hope that you, too, have your own ‘little village’ to experience!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. robertlfs says:

    Great read. Thanks for sharing. We have a young woman from Peru who is living with us here in Memphis for the next two years. She has been here for two weeks. When we were talking the other night I asked her what surprised her most about living in Memphis she immediately commented that people do not walk the streets. Everyone only drives around in cars and they do not talk to each other. We do not have the back lane experiences you so beautifully describe.

  2. marialegault says:

    Why thank you, Robert! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.

    I would say that we also have a very car-oriented urban form in my hometown, with lots of dispersed mega-shopping centers and limited off-road lanes for bicycles and pedestrians. I have noticed, however, an increased focus on preventing car access to our downtown during weekends – food trucks and vendors materialize out of nowhere, and people throng the streets. I hope it is a trend that will continue!

    Hopefully your visitor from Peru can adjust to the cultural changes, or find a group of people that she can join to experience the local streetscape (e.g. urban walking groups?). Her observation is definitely an interesting commentary on our lifestyles here in North America!

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