Saskatchewan·First Person

From crowbars to block parties: the difference neighbours can make

It took a move to Regina to teach me the difference neighbours can make.

The place I live is more than a neighbourhood. It's a community

A pre-pandemic block party in Annabel Townsend's Cathedral neighbourhood in Regina. (Submitted by Annabel Townsend)

This first person piece was written by Annabel Townsend, a writer and coffee geek from the U.K., now settled in Regina.

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In the early 2000s, we lived in a grey, wet and miserable little town in northeast England called Darlington. After years of people screaming at each other across the fences, teenagers causing trouble and police lights flashing every night, we began actively avoiding our neighbours. I felt we had little in common. 

It took a move to Regina to teach me the difference neighbours can make.

With my love of colour, dubious fashion sense and beloved old motorbike out in front of our house, we were definitely marked as "the weird couple" on our Darlington street and usually left alone. 

At first, we hardly noticed — none of my friends knew their neighbours either — but it soon grew lonely and isolating, especially when our first daughter was born. There was little help for me when I struggled to adapt to being a new mom and few other children on the street who I could imagine becoming her friends.

We seem to have far more in common with the people next door in Regina than we ever did in our 'hometown.'- Annabel Townsend

The ways in which the local environment sometimes encroached on our little bubble were unfortunately unwelcome.

At 2 a.m. one night a neighbour started frantically banging on our door. 

"Aaron has tried to take your bike!" she said.

Sure enough, my motorbike was gone from the curb. 

We all trooped outside in pyjamas, assuming Aaron wouldn't have got far yet. We were joined by another neighbour. Everyone loves a good late night drama, but her appearance was made even more alarming by the fact that she was covered in blood.

"Yeah, Aaron was 'round earlier. He wanted to borrow a crowbar, you know, to get the chain off. I couldn't find one." 

She obviously hadn't thought this was a reason to raise a red flag. 

Then my husband asked her about the blood. 

"Oh, don't worry," she said. "It's not mine. My boyfriend was being an arse so I headbutted him."

Annabel Townsend lived in Darlington, U.K., before moving to Regina. (Submitted by Annabel Townsend)

My bike was eventually recovered in a ditch by a railway bridge. Having not been able to remove the lock without the crowbar, Aaron had only been able to push the bike so far before the chain got wrapped around the wheel and stopped him. 

I notified the police, and the incident was added to Aaron's existing file of misdemeanours. (One of his first offences was scrawling his own name in green spray paint on the railway bridge, then apparently asking the police how they knew it was him.)

Finding a community

This incident, along with many similar experiences, eventually drove us to move overseas. Canada was the plan. Regina specifically was a happy accident. 

After a lengthy and complicated emigration process, my small family comfortably settled in the Cathedral neighbourhood. 

We have very little reason to avoid people here.

Here, an unexpected knock on the door one evening means a neighbour from the other side of the block amiably introducing themselves and thrusting a flyer printed on bright yellow paper into my hand. 

"We thought we should have a block party for Canada Day. You've got kids, haven't you? Bring them along!"

That was the first of many annual block parties. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to our Canada Day celebrations in 2020, but our neighbours were keen to adapt. Instead of inviting the whole block out onto the road, we opted for a socially distanced "back alley BBQ night." 

Each family dragged a barbecue into the alley behind us to cook our own food. We sat around having very loud conversations with our neighbours to bridge the literal and figurative gaps between our houses. 

Annabel Townsend's neighbours gather in the back alley for some socially distant visiting. (Submitted by Annabel Townsend)

The local kids, bored out of their minds from being home from school and isolating, jumped at the opportunity to hang out with someone other than Mum and Dad. Soon there were bike races happening, weaving in and out of the barbecues. The obligatory six-foot distancing suddenly came in very handy to avoid being run over. It was a lovely, if brief, respite from the lonely lockdown.

The pandemic has reaffirmed what I already knew: that emigrating has been the best decision we ever made. I was confident that no one at that barbecue would ever ask to borrow a crowbar at 2 a.m.

We may not have grown up in this city, or even on this continent, but we seem to have far more in common with the people next door in Regina than we ever did in our "hometown." It makes a huge difference. This is more than a neighbourhood. 

It's a community.

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Annabel Townsend is a writer and coffee geek from the U.K., now settled in Regina. She owns The Penny University Bookstore and can often be found delivering books and coffee around the city on a bakfiet cargobike.


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