The Doc Project

Is it normal to only know 5 people on your street?

Tom Howell always assumed his street just wasn't very neighbourly. But after he started knocking on doors, he realised he couldn't have been more wrong.
Tom Howell went from being perhaps the unfriendliest neighbour on his street to being extremely outgoing and inquisitive. (Linda Besner)

Originally published in March 2018.

After learning of a neighbourhood New Year's Eve Party to which I've never been invited, I became more curious about my neighbours. 

I moved into my house 15 years ago. Last week, I could only name five other people on the street, which had never seemed an abnormally bad score — until now.

The discovery of this New Year's Eve Party raised some troubling questions about the standards of friendliness where I live, and the scale on which I failed to meet them.

I used the game of 'How Many Neighbours Can You Name?' to get to know my neighbours’ names, faces and urban-design aesthetics. (Tom Howell)

So I made a game sheet, and started knocking on doors, asking each neighbour to name their neighbours. This quickly converted me into the only person on the street who knows literally everyone's name. And I now have a handy cheat-sheet for the next time I've forgotten someone.

My game also taught me that the normal number of neighbours to be able to greet by name is between 10 and 25. (This is for the suburb of East York, Ont.) This struck me as a huge number.

In a book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, a sociologist named Marc Dunkelman claims that — among all the other reasons why the world is going to pot — the world is also going to pot because we are failing to cultivate our "middle ring" of social relationships, meaning people with whom we must be familiar, but whose company we do not particularly like.

All the houses on my street look like this. Mine is one of the right-wing ones, so to speak. They were built in 1930-ish. (Tom Howell)

We are better able nowadays to push these people to an outer ring or beyond, where they only need bother us online, or even better, they get blocked. (I may be slightly misreading this book. I didn't have time to read it slowly.)

Meanwhile, we — whoever "we"includes (I feel it applies to me) — draw only the like-minded or easily compatible people closer.

This trend has caused a weakened ability to get along with fellow citizens simply because we have no choice. And this neglected "middle ring" holds obvious promise as an ingredient of a functional democracy.

Tom chases one of his neighbours in hopes of getting her to play his game, 'How Many Neighbours Can You Name?' (Linda Besner)

I always like to simplify ideas and put numbers on them. I defined my "middle ring" as people whose names I know without looking them up, whom I can say hello to, by name, without it being weird, and to make it harder, I must have some understanding of the person's aesthetics.

The "How Many Neighbours Can You Name?" game helped me expand my middle ring, especially when I used it to begin a conversation with neighbours about whether they would like a fountain on our street, and generally make the place look like a less ugly city, such as Montreal or Rome. 
Cheryl has lived on the street since she was born here 72 years ago. She does not want me to try changing it to look more like Montreal. (Tom Howell/CBC)

I report more results from my nosy-neighbour routine in my radio essay called "All the People On My Street."

Perhaps it only tells us about East York, Ont., or perhaps the results would also apply where you live. I think that when or if I move to a new area, I will aim to learn the names of 10 neighbours, the number I apparently should have known while living here for 15 years, in order to fit in with the local customs.

Aug. 2018 update: Did he stay or did he go?

Since making his documentary for The Doc Project in early 2018, Tom Howell has decided to stay in Toronto in his East York home. 

Why did you stay in Toronto?
We just chickened out and decided to live in Toronto for a few years while continuing to dream of a more beautiful existence in Montreal, which seems to be a pretty common state of mind in Toronto from what I can tell. Maybe when I am older and braver I will be ready to try living there. Also they just installed a big new fountain in downtown Toronto and everyone loves it so I'm waiting to see if that's the beginning of a turning point in this city re. fountains. 

How did your neighbours react?
My neighbours played a prank by putting a big development sign up in my front yard announcing the future construction of a large neighbourhood fountain on my property. Otherwise there are a couple who were mad at me for calling East York "suburban." And someone else wanted me to know that the "shooting" in our street as mentioned by Cheryl was actually a film shooting for a TV company, not a gun shooting. Cheryl had apparently misunderstood. (I haven't confirmed the facts of who was right about this.)


Listen to Tom's documentary by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.

Tom Howell
About the Producer

Tom Howell is a panellist on Because News, CBC Radio's comedy news quiz. He also jointly presents an ongoing series of documentaries about Canadian PhD students, called Ideas from the Trenches. His semi-fictional book about the English language is The Rude Story of English.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.