-by Jon Farmer

When we were kids my neighbours and I spent a lot of time in the park around the corner. We scrambled over the climbers and swings, ran up and down the slides, and learned how to throw Frisbees barefoot in the grass. Monkey bars aside, it was literally the place to hangout.

I moved back to my old neighbourhood as a twenty-something earlier this year. Now I pass the park everyday on my way to work. When summer arrived, turning the field to green and coaxing large leaves from the maple trees beside the road, I started to think about the park of my childhood. When we were kids it was easy to know everyone in the neighbourhood and for the most part we did. We met other kids at school or in the park. We met our grown-up neighbours at Halloween and when we asked to pet their dogs as they walked by. As kids, we didn't need much of an excuse to introduce ourselves or play in public spaces. Somehow that seems more difficult as adults.

When I came back to my hometown for work after university I moved in with neighbours a few doors down from my childhood home. My landlords moved to the neighbourhood in 2010. Five years later, through no fault of their own, I still know more of the neighbours than they do. They simply haven't had excuses to meet them. Trick or treating is less socially acceptable in your late 50s and the monkey bars don't draw that demographic. One morning around the breakfast table, our conversation turned to community and the neighbourhood. I told nostalgic stories about neighbourhood fireworks and collective yard sales, and asked if they had seen many people in the park over the past few years. They hadn't and in the conversation that followed we decided to change that by instigating a neighbourhood picnic.

Our goal was modest: meet the neighbours. We decided on a Saturday in July, slipped invitations into mail boxes, and my landlady arranged for popcorn maker and lemonade. The invitations suggested that people bring snacks, games, and instruments. We wanted people to have excuses to mingle and play.

The day of the picnic was sunny and hot. We put up a sign, arranged picnic tables with table clothes in the shade, wheeled the popcorn maker to the park, and borrowed electricity from a neighbouring house. To our delight – and surprise – 33 neighbours joined us. They came slowly at first but they came.

We greeted new arrivals with bags of popcorn and jars of lemonade, asked their names and gave out name tags. We sang songs , tossed Frisbees, and played cards. I met a woman – Billie – who has lived in the neighbourhood since 1952; I received a handstand lesson from a ten year old. Neighbours brought cookies and muffins, and we slowly shifted our chairs to chase the shade.

Sitting at the picnic with a friend strumming a guitar and folks chatting casually around, I got a strange feeling. Everything felt very old-fashioned or maybe it was European. Either way I was conjuring clichés, proof that what we were doing felt somehow unnatural. I want to change that. It was a delightful afternoon and I want relaxing with strangers and neighbours to feel normal the way it did when we were kids. In those days I didn't think of the houses around my subdivision as belonging to strangers or even to neighbours; for the most part I saw them as the houses of friends. As an adult I don't spend much time in spaces that are truly public. When I go out it's usually to a concert, coffee shop, restaurant, or bar –spaces I buy my way into. Parks are free and accessible. I'm not sure when they dropped off of my radar but at some point my friends and I just stopped going. If the buildings and park are the same twenty years later, then the difference must be in us. After all it's still possible to know our neighbours and there are still great places to hang out. All it takes is overcoming the internal barriers, leaving our own back yards, and inviting the folks around to come along.