Previously I wrote about how hard it's been to get to know our neighbors. In suburbs like Temple City, people tend to keep to themselves, not open doors to strangers, grow shrubbery around their property for privacy, and travel everywhere by car. As a result, it's not often that we see our neighbors face-to-face.
And let's face it (<--haha punny)... without face time it's nearly impossible for neighbors to learn each other's names — let alone become friends, gain trust, and build community.
One of the first things I did when we first moved in last year was to attempt to start a block email group. The goal was to connect neighbors via email so we could share local events, safety alerts, and help each other out when, say, someone needed to borrow a ladder or had too many oranges on their tree. I was sure everyone would love the idea. I printed out cute little fliers and stuck one in every mailbox on the street, inviting anyone interested to email me. I was very excited and waited for the emails to roll in.
I received one email.
Wait... that's not going to work. Two households don't make an email group! 😞 This was harder than I thought. I felt disheartened.
That was 18 months ago. Today, I realize that it was silly of me to hope that fliers alone would transform a neighborhood.
Building community is complicated. It takes time, trust, and an openness to learn about a place and understand its culture. It also involves a conscious effort to be a friendly, communicative, and generous member of society. I'm still trying to figure out how to do all this stuff.
Surprisingly, we discovered that there was one way for us to contribute to the neighborhood, and it was right under our noses.
Our garden! Yep, who knew?
Last year we killed our lawn and replaced it with a garden. In addition to providing us with yummy, fresh vegetables and making us feel like badasses for growing our own food, the garden has come with a unexpected side benefit: Helping us meet our neighbors.
From the very beginning, the garden has been a fantastic conversation starter. Since it's in the front yard, everyone sees it. When we started assembling the planter boxes, neighbors driving by slowed down, rolled down the window, and asked, "Whatcha building?" When we started putting in baby plants, curious neighbors would ask, "Whatcha growing?"
Some neighbors seemed skeptical. Others amused. Others impressed. More than once, people have asked if what we were doing was legal (it blows my mind how growing food in your yard could possibly be illegal). The other question we often get is "Aren't you afraid people are going to steal your vegetables?" (no, it doesn't bother us and it hasn't happened!).
But the point is, conversations were happening. Neighbors were introducing themselves, exchanging names, and becoming friends.
The first time I realized something special was happening was when Chris and I were planting our first batch of seedlings last summer. A small, elderly gentleman who lived a few doors down quietly emerged from his house and shuffled over to us.
He didn't speak much English but he came up to us and held out a small bag of seeds. They were amaranth seeds that he collected in his own yard. Scatter these in the soil, he said, they grow like weeds, and the leaves are delicious. Before this, we had never seen this guy or spoken with him ever, and here he was walking down the street just so he could share his seeds with us. Wow! We were so touched by his act of generosity and thoughtfulness. #allthefeels
As time went on, more and more neighbors stopped by the garden. I remember one time the kids next door came over and left with a homegrown zucchini, which they named Bob. The guy across the street loves to give us gardening tips based on his family's experience farming in China. A woman down the street gifted us a box of chocolate in exchange for some Swiss chard.
Distrust and discomfort melt away when someone is sharing homegrown vegetables and fruit. It's such a fun way to meet new people.
Not all our crops have done well (darn you aphids...), but at times we have found ourselves with excess food that we can't eat on our own. We have given out loads of kale, squash, chard, eggplant, and more.
Currently, we have such a glut of summer squash that I've put a "free pile" on our front porch for the neighborhood:
Sharing begets more sharing. We offer garden vegetables to a neighbor across the street. The following week, they lend Chris tools that he needs for his construction work. I help translate a notice in the mail they can't read. They keep an eye on our house when we're out of town. It's a positive feedback system that everyone benefits from.
Chris and I are amazed by the social power of our garden, and we think it stems from a universal love: food. Food is something all people relate to, regardless of age, culture, race, politics, or background. It is a starting point for building friendships.
People love to stop and look at our garden. They love to ask questions, they love to give advice, and they love to watch things grow. Even better, sometimes multiple neighbors congregate at the garden at the same time which means it's not only us meeting new people; neighbors are meeting each other as well.
Chatting about the garden leads to other topics. Someone might make a spontaneous comment about our tomatoes and 15 minutes later, we've talked about their kids, how long we've lived in the neighborhood, our favorite hobbies, and how the block email group works (which now includes 10 households!). Through these conversations we learn about one another. I have learned that among my neighbors are a general contractor, a teacher, a masseuse, and an air conditioner repairman. I never knew there was so much expertise and knowledge on our street!
It's been a wonderful experience getting to know my neighbors. They are children, parents, and grandparents. They are from around the world: China, Mexico, the Philippines, Argentina, and more. They are hardworking, friendly, and kindhearted. They make me smile and laugh. They make the street a more joyful place to live.
When neighbors know and trust each other, it makes the community more safe, vibrant, and resilient. Instead of existing in isolation, each household is part of a web of support.
Our street is still a quiet place where people mostly keep to themselves. But I'm grateful that we can offer our garden as a small way for neighbors to connect with one another. We are not only growing vegetables, but a sense of community as well. 😊