“The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbour.”
It’s ridiculous that I got to the age of 37 before I truly appreciated the importance of community.
For thousands of years, community has been the reason that humankind has survived everything that Mother Nature could throw at it, including mega-floods, ice ages, volcanoes, and if you lived in Australia 12,000 years ago, the magnificent but irascible giant echidna.
Yet many of us born in urban New Zealand in the 1960s, 70s and 80s have no idea as to the extent to which our parents and the generations before them relied upon their local community to survive.
Indeed, a lot of us now living in Devonport probably grew up somewhere else, left home to go to Uni, went flatting, got a job and have spent the majority of our lives commuting five days a week to a barren building some miles away, in which we work long hours with a bunch of people we know better than those to whom we live next door. Consequently, we have rarely relied on our neighbours for anything.
Which is why, fellow Devonport resident, you are so ridiculously lucky. Because here, in the heart of one of the most liveable cities on the planet and surrounded by an unrivalled aquatic playground, extraordinary heritage and unique natural beauty, you are (along with Russell and Akaroa) a member of one of the very few surviving, old urban communities in New Zealand.
If you’re anything like I was ten years ago, you’ve probably not had a lot of time to reflect on this. Let’s face it, you’ve got the mortgage to worry about, the kids to get to their 42 extra-curricular activities (all of which involve negotiating the perpetual nightmare of Lake Rd), the upcoming redundancy round at work and that two week business trip to the crowded jungles of London, New York and Takapuna.
It took me three kids, two redundancies, too much Chardonnay and ten years in Devonport to begin to understand that these things give you nothing back. You can dedicate your life to them and be left with nothing at the end. In my experience, there is one thing outside of your immediate whanau that is the exception; your community.
Your community will provide support to your partner who stays at home with the kids. Your community will organise fund-raising activities that ensure your school is never short of resources. Your community will lobby the local council to ensure your environment is protected. Your community will provide a plethora of well-run social and sporting activities that you and your family will safely enjoy. Your community will provide reliable people to feed your cat, babysit your kids and collect your post while you are away.
Yes. Communities can be parochial. They can be resistant to change. They can be small-minded. They can harbour malcontents like merchant bankers and Lord knows, there’s always an old misery guts or two. But ultimately, our local community provides us, our partners and children with a myriad of support structures and a safe environment that is all too easy to take for granted. You may recall from a recent Flagstaff, that Devonport has the lowest crime stats of any suburb in New Zealand. It is no coincidence that Devonport is also a relatively close community.
So this weekend, take a moment to consider your wider whanau. If you’ve just got back from that business trip, or you’ve worked a 60 hour week in the CBD, or have been fretting about those imminent redundancies at the office, get involved in something that is and will continue to give you and your family something back.
Have lunch this weekend at a local café; perhaps pop into one of the local stores rather than Westfield or the WareWhare. Check out the Naval Museum, take the family to a film at The Vic, or drop in to the latest exhibition at The Depot. Conversely, be patient with the guy backing his trailer too slowly at the dump; he could be your kid’s teacher. Smile at the woman decorating the floor with her change at the New World checkout; she’s probably a nice person having a bad day.
The unhappiest, most bitter and unnecessarily angry people I have met over the years are so often those who have for whatever reason, cut themselves off from the community around them.
“I nod to a passing stranger, and the stranger nods back, and two human beings go off, feeling a little less anonymous.”
And perhaps, a little more human.It’s worth remembering; in a community, everyone can be someone.