Have we lost the skill of forming strong communities? Ironically, neoliberal economic policies may bring us back together. By Brigid Delaney.

Brigid Delaney
Diverse backgrounds make for strong communities

Forget big cities and alienation. First day in a new building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and three people knock on the door to introduce themselves. They arrive with pies and cakes, subway maps and spare MetroCards. Their business cards and phone numbers. 

In other buildings there were parties in the lobby and on the roof for residents: Halloween, Fourth of July, Veterans’ Day. Out in Brooklyn there were block parties on sweltering days: streets blocked off with ice-cream trucks and DJs; Jamaicans cooking chicken on barbecues; little kids playing hopscotch; people sitting on stoops, chewing homemade toffee. It felt like an episode from Sesame Street.

These were tangible communities – the parties and the gatherings weaving together what Russell Brand called “… the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.”

He was writing about community in the context of Thatcher and how she tried to break the mining towns of the north. For my American friends, community is what you’ve got when the government has moved on – when there is nothing between you and the free market. Friends who lived in those close-knit American neighbourhoods point out that the tight communities I envied are often born from disadvantage and a shared vulnerability – residents are low-income, uninsured, away from family, living alone, elderly, jobbing freelancers. In short, they needed each other.

The social capital built up in the summer days of parties and lobby small talk gets spent on pharmacy runs, assistance to get to the doctor, an hour of childminding here or there. But for the most part there’s a premium on anonymity in the apartment blocks of Melbourne and Sydney. A “good building” is one where you are not bound to others – where you don’t have to say hello in the lobby, when you can avoid the burden of eye contact.

Helen Garner wrote of her apartment building in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill: “I am invisible, in this apartment building. I enter through the front door. Coming out the carpeted panelled lobby are three young women … My neighbours! I want to be greeted and to greet. The first two pass me with heads down, expressionless.”

Garner forces a greeting out of the third, who, “replies mechanically, without even glancing up”.

I was once like these young women, resentful at having to acknowledge neighbours, performing elaborate pantomimes when another resident approached – rustling through the empty mailbox in the lobby, pretending to take a call outside the security gate, not leaving the apartment until the footsteps had fallen away in the hall. The Onion nailed it last week in a headline: “Exit From Apartment Delayed 20 Seconds To Avoid Pleasantries With Neighbor.”

But there’s something noxious drifting through politics at the moment – a neoliberal vibe that has the potential to awaken some dormant community spirit in our cities. “Nothing is free,” said Joe Hockey last week, forewarning the introduction of co-payments and a lifting of pension eligibility age. The “age of entitlement is over” he’s been warning since 2012.

If this is the narrative of the government, the future is not difficult to imagine. It’s more of us living alone than ever before – still shuffling off to work when we’re 70, needing a job to pay for the doctor. A strong community provides a bulwark against moving alone through life in an age of extreme self-reliance and individualism, where the government has retreated.

But how equipped are we at forming strong communities? Like more and more of my peers I don’t want to live an atomised, “bad neighbour” existence anymore. Maybe it’s getting older. Or maybe in the block parties of Brooklyn and the kindness of neighbours, I’ve seen how fun and fulfilling it can be. I want to belong, to know my neighbours. I want to be greeted and greet.

But what happens when you move to a community where you feel – at least initially – the differences more than the similarities, where there is an obvious and unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity?

I’ve been in my new neighbourhood three weeks now and am struggling to connect. I have moved to one of the most notorious drug dealer and sex worker strips in Australia. I walk to work in the dark, about 5.30am, and it’s like running the gauntlet through Hades. Girls with young bodies and old faces on the street corners looking for sex work, guys buying drugs, people in the rain with their shirts unbuttoned, screaming to a lamp post. Homeless men asleep on the footpath, clutching roast chickens. Horrible dudes driving past and throwing eggs at the girls. Arguments don’t so much drift out of the apartments as provide a soundtrack to this daily loop of bottoming out. All day, every day, and right through the night.

How tempting it is to move to a quieter place, the housing equivalent of a golf club or book group. Somewhere self-selecting where not a lot of heavy lifting has to be done when it comes to the business of fitting in.

But that would be a mistake.

London School of Economics professor Richard Sennett says in his book Together that he considers “co-operation between people from differing backgrounds to be key to a thriving community and social life”. Sennett identified an us-against-them ethos in communities where there wasn’t a mix of backgrounds. He writes of his fear of “losing the skills of co-operation needed to make a complex society work”.

A friend who works in public housing speaks with pride about how the communities in Melbourne with skyrocketing land value – such as Kensington and Fitzroy – also have a high percentage of social and public housing tenants. “In a knowledge economy like ours, the thing that makes us most successful is openness. The challenge for people coming into these communities is to connect.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "These are the people in your neighbourhood". Subscribe here.

Brigid Delaney
is the author of the novel Wild Things.