Here’s my latest post for Medium.com–read it below or here:
Short answer: plant out tree beds on your block in the summer. In doing so, you can’t help but meet the people you share a street with.
Longer answer: Where I grew up in Scotland — the town of Selkirk, in the Scottish Borders, current population 5,784 — everyone says hello to everyone when they pass them in the street. Thus, pretty much everyone knows each other, whether you like it or not. I liked it a lot when I lived there, and I still do when I go back to visit. Among the many things I miss about home, that’s close to the top of my list.
About ten years ago, when my siblings and I went to university, my mum moved to a nearby village called Lilliesleaf — also in the Scottish Borders, current population 301 people. There are two roads in Lilliesleaf — Main Road, and Back Road. It’s therefore highly awkward if you don’t say hello to anyone you pass, as the likelihood is that they know you very well and will wonder what they’ve done to offend you if you’re silent.
This custom of saying hello to everyone I pass became a huge problem for me when I moved to New York eleven years ago, and not because New Yorkers are unfriendly — they’re super friendly once they stop to chat or if you ask them for help. But there are 8.4 million of them and, in addition, in midtown where I work there are also a ton of tourists. So, saying hello to everyone I meet is a whole different ballgame in that environment. It’s physically impossible and the outcomes are really not the same as I enjoyed back home. People think you’re crazy if you try it on Fifth Ave.
I tried it on the UWS where I lived when I very first moved to the city and it met a lukewarm response; same in Kips Bay where I lived next — I think I was living in too much of a mono-generational bubble on my particular block. (I was still fairly new — I didn’t know any better when I frantically searched Craigslist.) I tried it in Brooklyn, in South Williamsburg, where I lived for seven years; it worked well with anyone over the age of forty but no one my age (currently 34 years old, then in my twenties) reciprocated very often. When my husband and I moved to South Bushwick two years ago, where the blocks that surround us are truly multi-generational, I finally felt like I was home again. I said hello, and nine times out of ten the passers-by responded. In addition they smiled, and once in a blue moon they’d stop to chat. What’s more, they often beat me to the punch with a greeting, to which I always respond with an enthusiastic “Good Morning/Afternoon/hello and how are you!!”
My husband limits me to a two block radius of “hellos” and “good mornings” otherwise he says we are late to work.
And then, over the last year, for a number of reasons about which I have no complaints — dissertation writing, exacting but exciting projects at work — I have been working harder and harder and getting home later and later, and leaving earlier and earlier until a few weeks ago I realized I hadn’t walked around my neighborhood in a while when other people — my neighbors, passers by — were out and about on the streets. I felt disconnected. And so one Saturday I decided to to something about it. This is how I truly got to know my neighbors…..
I like gardening a lot. I took a look at the tree beds on our street and realized that many of them were full of trash and weeds:
One or two of my neighbors (the ones who have been living on the block a long, long time) keep the tree beds outside their homes really nicely. I decided to clean up the rest of the tree beds on the street, one by one, over several weekend days, in between work and emails. First, I cleared off all the trash from each tree bed. Here’s what one of them looked like before:
Then I went and got lots of mulch. And when I say I, I mean my husband really kindly came with me and we both lugged several car loads of mulch back to our block. I set out a layer over the newly trash-free tree beds:
Then a layer of top soil:
Then a few plants. I’d have liked to have added a lot more, but this was done on a budget (about $25–30 per tree bed) and I think the end result looks just fine:
I also put some stakes around it until we can petition the city to give us proper tree guards, and a few signs encouraging people to keep their pets out of the flowers. (For those of you as OCD as me — I did sweep the edges very carefully so there’s a nice straight line of dirt. It’s no Ryoan-ji, but it’s quite neat.) That part’s not yet done in this picture:
Contrary to my concern about my activity being a category one gentrification offense, every neighbor I’ve spoken to has pointed out that street beautification has long been a neighbor-instigated activity in Bushwick and nearby Bed-Stuy (and in many other neighborhoods in NYC) and so our block is carrying on the tradition.
The best things about this project?
3. The tree beds look really sweet and there’s less trash on our street now because it’s much more guilt-inducing to drop trash onto a geranium than it is on an existing pile of other trash.
2. It was a super relaxing break to do a tree bed for 20 minutes every time I went cross-eyed from doing other weekend work.
But the stand out?
1. Meeting my neighbors, and my neighbors meeting each other, as everyone came out to take a look, to help, to chat about the weather, and to think about what other things they’d like to see happen on the block. Because everyone loves flowers. Everyone. Young and old, all gender expressions, all lengths of time living on the block. I have yet to come across one neighbor who has pined for fewer flowers and more trash.
There are a few NYC projects run by the city that help streets get plants for their residents to put out in the summer, and also a tree planting initiative — these are great know know about and apply for. However, what my neighbors and I have discussed is that if we do it ourselves, we care about it an awful lot and everyone works to keep it nice. And it also gets done a bit faster.
Flowers existed on some parts of the block already, and there is a block association that does other great stuff on our block like a party every year, but most of the tree beds needed a little love. And now they have it, and my neighbors and I get to see a little more floral festivity each morning. And I get to feel like I have a little piece of Selkirk and Lilliesleaf in Brooklyn, because I know at least twenty people on my block much better than I did at the start of July.
Susan, Mal, Arle, Stephanie, Wayne, Rock, Kevin, Tanya, V, Patrick, Lauren, Layla, Layla’s brother Ray, Lisa, Layla’s other brother Gil, Tomasina and Jose and their sons, Nina and Joel, Edgar, Lakeon and his family, Vicki, AJ, Armani and her grandma , and everyone else whose names I am still learning— I am so happy to say hello to you when I see you, and even happier you pretty much beat me to the punch each time.
Finally, I should also say thanks to my mum who is the real horticulturalist in the family and taught me everything I know about flowers — and to always say hello to anyone I pass on the street.