Good fences might make good neighbours, but a recent experience shows me that good potlucks make better ones.
I've lived on my street for 16 years, strolled along the boardwalk just south of us almost every day, held up a stool at the local coffee shop almost every day, walked outside every week in my dressing gown and waved to others carting out grey boxes and blue boxes before the garbage trucks come by.
But I only just discovered what a latecomer I am to my own neighbourhood. Wineva Avenue was already holding its fifth annual potlatch when I clued in.
Potluck isn't really the right word. Unlike that catch-as-catch-can food experience, where people come to a party and pawn off their favourite dips along with potato chips or crackers, or maybe even a microwave-heated President's Choice lasagna (I admit it, I have been hanging around lefties and activists too much), what I'm describing is really called a "progressive" dinner. These are, in effect, street, apartment or condo food crawls.
People bring their specialties to about three homes: one for appetizers and drinks, one for mains and one for desserts. Quality-wise, it's a night out on the town enjoyed just down the street. Lifestyle-wise, these movable feasts just might revive an almost extinct form of networking: conviviality.
Which is why I think we should all get the pot boiling by joining the Potluck Action Network (www.potluckactionnetwork.org), whose slogan is "It's easier to save the world on a full stomach." The group provides mentoring so would-be potluckers don't lose their nerve.
The evening starts in the flat below ours, with 38 people sharing drinks, appetizers and appetizer recipes. Three mavens, homemakers and retirees, have made sure everyone's brought something different if not special, and that all taste buds are covered. The noise and chatter level rises fast, and people start asking who's going to be the designated walker long before the official icebreaker that has us break into groups for a Wineva trivia quiz.
Then we waddle halfway up the block for the main course. The little stroll lets the signal get through to the brain that tummy inner tubes are starting to fill.
The house tour that precedes each course is a chance to indulge the most popular hobby in our 'hood. Two brothers back in the 1930s built about 100 four-plexes that started out all looking the same but are now totally distinctive. It's an illustration of Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, the architectural classic that features the importance of user-friendly forms that can be poked, pushed and renovated into unique shapes by different residents.
Still well over 30-strong, we manage another short stroll to another quarter of a four-plex for a series of desserts, teas and coffees.
"It's all about getting to know your neighbours and prompting everybody to watch out for one another," says Keith, one of the organizers, a retired graphic designer.
Thanks to the dinner, neighbourliness has mushroomed into an annual street-based spring lawn sale, a fall golf tournament and barbecue, a monthly WOW (Women of Wineva) get-together and an up-and-coming book club. Can a consciousness-raising group be far behind? There's a neighbourhood watch thing happening, and I even notice some community economic development starting to happen: my teenage daughter gets a babysitting gig, and another's teenage son lands work snow-shovelling - a payoff for avoiding neighbourhoods segregated by age or income.
Come to think of it, food was what first brought me in into contact with neighbours about 13 years ago. The storefront public health office just up the street (location, location and location predicts the success of all ventures, including not-for-profit ones) offered a breastfeeding course for new moms, who became bosom buddies.
That's when Janice, one of the progressive diners, found the motivation and critical mass to organize a petition for a stop sign midway down the street.
Neighbourhoods are almost as old as tribes in human history. They're entrenched in the geography of everyday life, and have become a metaphor for how life can be lived when people strive to help each other in mundane ways. "To practise tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours" is a key phrase in the preamble to the United Nations charter.
Loving your neighbour is a lot more inclusive than loving your bloodline, race or class. Once part of a street-smart and organic interface where workplace, home, family and school happened in the same place, neighbourhoods now are at risk of becoming places people drive through on their way to somewhere else.
The kindness of strangers and good Samaritans, based on humane motivations but not grounded in a home base, don't quite make up for the loss. Recovering from that loss is what makes progressive dinners progressive.