Seemingly Tiny Neighborhood Things Can Make a Major Difference

In my neighborhood there’s a young mother who walks around the neighborhood several times a day, walking her dog and pushing her daughter in a stroller. She says hi to everyone she passes, and, particularly for some elderly housebound residents, she might be the only person that they get to see all day! Even though I myself get to talk with a lot of people, this sweet young woman with her child and pup are always a bright spot in my day.

Two businesses, located catty-corner across from one another on a faded commercial street I love, that many people are trying to revitalize, have put tables and chairs out front of their doors. The other evening, the two sets of tables and chairs enticed several visitors/customers to sit down. The presence of the people sitting outdoors, in turn, prompted a number of motorists, who probably would’ve otherwise just kept driving, to stop and say hi and see what was going on. Many pleasant conversations ensued.

In my Little Free Library the other day I found a note scrawled on a scrap of paper: “TY so much for the books!” The little note warmed my heart and totally made my day.

I haven’t yet done this, but I think that when I mount my poster of the ecological activist poem “Hieroglyphic Stairway” on my fence next to my Little Free Library, it’ll add to the quality of people’s day, and contribute to the ongoing rise in the neighborhood’s vibe. (If you’re not familiar with this Drew Dellinger poem, you can read it here.) And here, on Drew Dellinger’s website, is where I ordered a beautiful poster of the poem. (Update: I posted the poem on a cork board on the corner of my corner-lot. Haven’t seen or heard any reactions yet, but it’s out there and that’s what matters. To quote my favorite lines of the poem, “I want just this consciousness reached / by people in range of secret frequencies contained in my speech.”)

My friends, a sweet couple who live in a rural area where the neighbors have not always been friendly and have sometimes been outright hostile, recently put a little stone bench by the entrance to their driveway. My friends noticed a positive shift in the vibe almost immediately. People have been stopping there to rest, and one neighborhood matriarch has even been known to “hold court” there!

My final example isn’t from right in my neighborhood, but I found it on my morning walk today. About a half-mile down the beach, not far from the usual trash can and recycling can, was an adorable painted box labeled “Mermaid’s Lost Toys.” Clearly meant as a place to drop off toy buckets, shovels, and other beach toys instead of tossing them in the trash. This little box conveys a big message about sharing; adds a sweet touch of whimsy; sets a cheerful tone while discouraging a throwaway mentality.

I mention these little things because 1) they do make a big difference; and 2) a lot of people give much of their attention to “big stuff” like infrastructure bills, government programs, large-scale projects — and place a lot of faith in such big stuff. And often wait around for this big stuff, and don’t always recognize how much power we have through the “small stuff” we can do right now with our own hands, and start seeing results right away.

Chuck Marohn’s recent piece in Strong Towns fits in well with this post. “Will We Have an Infrastructure Bill? Who Cares?” “I’ll spend an hour talking with a group about how we’ve overbuilt our infrastructure systems, what this approach is robbing from our local capacity and prosperity, how we need to get more out of what we’ve already built, and how we go about doing that in our cities from the bottom up. …Then someone asks me whether or not there will be a federal infrastructure bill. … I’ll keep answering the question about a federal infrastructure bill, but please understand that it matters far less to your future than what you and your neighbors choose to do in your own community. A nation of Strong Towns — one where the energy of Americans is not dissipated by the inconsequential horse race of political DC, but instead put to work making their own places great — is not something we have to wait for permission to build.”

Update Oct 12, 2021: Home improvement; neighborhood improvement!! By removing a side-gate that I never used anyway, and moving my trash can and recycling bin to the gate-gap which is right along the sidewalk that gets a lot of foot-traffic, I have added a bit of public value to my neighborhood. (Just in time for Biketoberfest that’s coming up this weekend!)

Before, I kept the trash can and recycling bin tucked away in a private spot. By moving it to this public spot, I not only add a community value (by providing a publicly accessible spot for trash and recycling), but also make things easier for myself and other household members, because all I have to do now to put the trash out is push the can and bin the couple of feet to the curb on trash collection day!

This is one micro-step in my experimental, exploratory process of making the public-private boundaries of my dwelling more “porous” and thus, I intend, more enriching to the neighborhood and to my household. You can see a photo of my new private-public amenity here.