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Our Town

By Robin Harvey
Network, Summer 2008

For a person living with a mental illness, their community environment is crucial to counteract isolation — one of the biggest pitfalls for anyone in a big city. Though I may define myself primarily as a mother, journalist or friend, the fact that I am a person living in recovery, with rapid-cycling bipolar mood disorder type two, is always on my horizon.

During most of my adult life in Toronto — whether homeowner or tenant — I’ve lived within a few blocks of the stretch of Bloor Street West from Keele over to Jane Street. This west-end city space reflects many of the ideas behind the “new urbanism,” which is beginning to define healthy neighbourhoods.

These days, as a tenant in a low-rise apartment building across from the majestic expanse of High Park, I have access to the best of the city’s green space. I can enjoy, de-stress and keep busy with swimming, skating and nature trails, with theatre, music concerts and a host of festivals and activities year round.

Within a half-hour’s trek on Bloor Street are all of my shopping and service needs, like banking and dry-cleaning. There’s also a library, video store, bookstore, shoemaker, printing and computer store, specialty stores, and of course many restaurants, coffee shops and pubs. Public transit is literally around the corner. I have given up my car.

The combination creates that magical quality “social cohesion” that experts define as a key ingredient to neighbourhood health. I’ll try to explain in simple life examples how I think it works.

Knowing who surrounds you goes a long way to making you feel safe. You also look out for other people. It is no surprise to me that our hallways have photographs hanging in them and the building is in very good shape.”

My three-story apartment has communal balconies. So besides meeting folks in the laundry room or halls, except in the coldest winter, many residents congregate at night and on weekends to chill and chat outside. There I’ve met many of my neighbours on a semi-social level, and, at times, met their extended families and in-laws.

And here is how it makes a difference. An exotic concert cellist lived across the hall from me for some time and I found her practising lovely to listen to. But I also knew her name, that she came from New York after 9/11 and that she played with many prestigious local groups. I’m sure that made hearing the same classical riff played over and over a positive experience, where in other circumstances, those long hours of play may have been annoying.

Don’t get me wrong. Though my floormates seem to know enough about each other to console a neighbour sitting outside alone after a breakup, we are also still polite and reserved Torontonians, who keep our private space. And it is not all idyllic. Petty feuds, personality clashes and gossip do happen. But I think that is better than nothing at all.

Witness one early spring night when the folks on the third-floor balcony were celebrating the surprisingly warm weather with a bit of vino and, unusually, did not observe the unspoken weekday “no noise after 11” rule. All I had to do was hiss out my front window, “Guys!” and it grew quiet. The next morning there was a small bouquet of flowers and an apology card attached to my door, “from the rowdy gang.”

Knowing who surrounds you goes a long way to making you feel safe. You also look out for other people. It is no surprise to me that our hallways have photographs hanging in them and the building is in very good shape. People support the rules here, not letting folks in through the security buzzer unless they know who they are, because we care about each other’s well-being. Not everyone is a long-term tenant. But there are many. And when we help someone new move in, it doesn’t take long for them to “get it.”

In our laundry room, everybody can leave their detergent out labeled with their apartment number. And every once in awhile one of us picks up the stray dryer sheets and grabs the laundry room broom to sweep. In a pinch, I’ve been able to borrow a CD at 11:15 at night because I know who works at what and the general hours most people keep. I’ve also engaged the free expertise of another neighbour who is an IT pro to troubleshoot a problem on my computer. When the tenant beneath me was moving out, though we had only spoken a few times, I did not hesitate to lend her my vacuum after hers broke down. And I know the pharmacist three doors down the block where I get my medication by his first name, and staff there ask how a family member is doing days or weeks after a prescription for a seasonal illness.

Once when I heard a remarkably loud crash in the apartment above me, I thought nothing of walking up and knocking to make sure everything was fine. I had spoken to the petite woman who lives there many times. It turns out she and her partner had been shifting some furniture and it went “boom.” I suspect that if there were ever any serious sounds of harm in this building, people would come flooding out to help.

This environment — where I can’t walk several blocks along on a nice afternoon without saying “hi” to at least half a dozen people — sets up expectations of caring and responsibility. And then isolation and disconnection float out the window. And I can sit typing my stories while the soft sound of jazz from a concert in the park across the street wafts in as my free entertainment.

Robin Harvey is a freelance journalist in Toronto.

Livable Communities

Healthy communities must be livable, that is, they need to include such things as parks, community halls, arts facilities and seniors centres.

Elements of a livable community include:

  • parks, tot-lots and open space
  • community gardens
  • a community hall, church or place of worship
  • schools that are located in the middle of the community, rather than the edge
  • facilities for seniors and youth
  • space for the arts
  • a strategy to fund and implement such elements

Source: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation)

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