Meet a neighbour this weekend
By Mike Layton
Several years ago my wife and I moved into a new, small, two-bedroom second floor walk-up flat on Beatrice Street in Little Italy. The community was a changing one: young adults from a wide range of backgrounds were supplanting the aging Italian neighbours. My wife and I belonged to the former group, our new neighbour to the latter.
Walking past my neighbour’s house one day shortly after we moved in, I exchanged a brief ciao with my new neighbour, who, while short in stature, was clearly large in personality. A couple of days later, I introduced myself. We spoke briefly, the sort of pleasantries you exchange with someone you sit next to on a plane.
Clearly he hadn’t had a great relationship with the previous inhabitants of our unit, or with our new landlords who had renovated to split the house into rentals. But despite the negative impression left by our predecessors and our landlords (who still lived on the main floor), he was clearly willing to give my partner and me a chance.
It puts a smile on my face to see the organized bocce league in Fred Hamilton Park where Italian seniors share their wisdom with eager young students.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but that simple gesture of introducing myself and learning a bit about my neighbour would change the way I look at our city. It also made me an unlikely friend with whom I would continue a relationship well after I moved out.
Over the years we lived on Beatrice Street, my relationship with my new neighbour Tony Maneli grew stronger. He was an avid urban farmer, a brewer of homemade spirits, and full of history of our street and Toronto politics.
About two years later I decided to run for Toronto City Council. I set out to talk to as many people as possible in my community. My street seemed like a good place to start. On day one of the campaign I walked over to my neighbours and made my pitch. The welcoming demeanour that Tony showed me, his neighbour, was not one shared with most politicians. But in his friendly way he heard me out. He questioned the motives of all politicians, as some cynics do, but our conversation ended well and I went to the next door to meet another neighbour.
As the election proceeded, clearly I had gained a supporter in Tony, who now not only had a sign on his lawn, but also came down to my campaign office opening and made a donation. For a senior on a pension, I knew this meant I had earned his trust, at least as a friend.
After I moved to a new place, Tony and I stayed in close touch. We exchanged panettone and wine at Christmas. He frequently brought neighbours to my community office hours at the CHIN building.
After Tony was diagnosed with cancer, I started seeing him with less frequency. I would still visit him at home and he’d share stories about City Hall’s current and previous mayors. He would often urge me and my wife to have children and ask us what we were waiting for. We have since had our now five-month-old Phoebe.
Now, when I walk down the street, it puts a smile on my face to see the organized bocce league in Fred Hamilton Park where Italian seniors share their wisdom with eager young students, little Italy’s newest inhabitants; when I meet a foodie who has learnt the art of tomato sauce canning from the nonna next door who shared their family recipe; when I see neighbours cleaning snow or cutting lawns for each other.
All of this speaks to the people who help make Toronto a small town in a big city. We are the largest city in Canada, but we are still a place where we know our neighbours. Our city depends on this sense of community if we are to grow sustainably and inclusively.
When I get phone calls from residents in decade-long feuds with their neighbours over often trivial matters, it saddens me to think that we are spending so much of our time battling one another and what a toll that takes on ourselves and our communities.
My old neighbour Tony died last month. I mourned with his close friends and family at our loss, but felt joy in having stepped a bit outside my small daily routine and made a new friend. I hope you can find some time this weekend to do the same. We are all stronger for it.
Mike Layton is the councillor for Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina.
READ MORE BY MIKE LAYTON:
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Happy New Year from a new Dad with a new perspective (January 2016)