Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Sweat the Small Stuff

Dear Winnipeg,

Glenelm Gal here. I don’t know about you, but after a fairly depressing municipal budget season and now being plunged back into a Covid Christmas, I think things could use some lightening up around here.

It’s been just over five years since my husband (Elmwood Guy) and I started getting involved in our neighbourhood. It really began when we joined forces with our neighbours to stop a pawn shop from opening on our high street, Henderson Hwy. Uniting to reach a common goal felt really good, but once we’d accomplished what we set out to, we really wanted to keep that momentum going. Thus, with encouragement and support from folks who’ve been in the game much longer than we have, we helped to revive our local neighbourhood association, which had been dormant for a few years.

Since then, along with many of our neighbours, we’ve been involved in helping to organize dozens of (maybe even over a hundred!) events and initiatives. It’s been an absolute game-changer in terms of how connected I feel to my community, and a big part of the reason that my connection to Winnipeg has continued to deepen even after my initial honeymoon stage with the city waned.  

Now, I could probably write a whole novel about all the fun things our small-but-mighty neighbourhood association has had the pleasure of pulling off. Some of them are simple (like the annual no-stakes “brightest block” holiday lights challenge, where the prize is just bragging rights). Others are more complicated (like forming a tree committee and securing funding to re-plant dozens of boulevard trees).

Some sound complicated but really weren’t (a one-night roving porch concert event) and some were initially complicated but evolved to be simpler and easier as the years went by (the annual snow sculpture challenge).

There is no shortage of great things you can pull off when you have a great group of dedicated, creative, talented, generous volunteers like we do here in Glenelm!

(I also LOVE hearing about what other neighbourhoods do. Two of my favourite recent stories are about the Wolseley Miracle food drive and the West End Christmas Miracle.)

But today I just want to talk about how little things can make just as much of an impact on a neighbourhood as big things, and share some of my favourite examples from right here in Glenelm. I had nothing to do with any of them, and they brought me enormous joy!

Since Christmas is just around the corner, I will start with the community Christmas tree. This time last year, the folks at the Big Red Church (aka Gordon-King Memorial United Church) on Cobourg Ave set up a tree, strung some lights on it, and put out a call to the neighbourhood to add decorations.

Within days there were decorations, popcorn garlands, birdseed ornaments and more. Deep into lockdown, we couldn’t go into anyone else’s homes to celebrate the holidays, but this tree was there for the whole neighbourhood to enjoy.

And my favourite part: people loved it so much that it stayed up and evolved into a Valentine’s tree with a new crop of red and pink hearts and decorations! (I was hoping it might then evolve into a St Patrick’s tree, but I accept that all good things must come to an end.)

The community tree went up last weekend. I can’t wait to see how beautiful it will be again this year!

After schools went into remote learning in the spring of 2020, the neighbourhood (and obviously, the world) felt so quiet. Although more folks were suddenly out walking, I really missed seeing the throngs of neighbourhood kids out and about on their way to and from school and at lunch time. So it was a wonderful surprise to one day discover that a teacher at our local elementary school had created a “lamp post poetry” project. Between the adorable hand-writing, sweet words and funny drawings, these laminated poems were a delightful thing to stumble upon while out walking.

Stumbling upon art in an unexpected place was, I think, also part of the goal of a community art wall that popped up a while back. The wall creates a little splash of colour to brighten someone’s day as they walk through the park. Appreciate it from a distance while walking by, or head over and take a look up close; either way, it’s a neat experience.

Speaking of colour, Winnipeg is known for its love of painted rocks. Over the past couple of summers, tiny rock gardens cropped up and turned out to be the perfect destination for days when you need to get the kids out of the house but it’s really too hot to DO anything. We’d hem and haw over all the great rocks before finally selecting one (or okay, sometimes two) special ones to take home. Some of the Winnipeg rocks we took home have even travelled in care packages to family members in other provinces.

Other great neighbourhood destinations are Little Free Libraries. You never know what you might find. Sometimes the pickins are slim: old textbooks or too-religious-for-me story books. Other times you hit the jackpot – a book that you’ve been wanting to read, or a fresh celebrity magazine. The fun is in the not-knowing! And in my experience, kids are much less discerning. They love looking through the books and making their own choice. Even if you get a dud, you can just return it to the Little Free Library universe where it may turn out to be someone else’s treasure.

Ever walked by a fence post and noticed that it was wearing a lonely, lost mitten? It kind of makes you feel good that someone took the time to pick up the mitt and put it somewhere more visible, doesn’t it? Well – that’s the feeling I got, times ten, when I saw this “lost gear” clothesline pop up at the bottom of the local toboggan hill last winter. It’s such a little thing, but someone thought to themselves “this hill needs a lost and found” and then planned ahead to create one. And that is love!

I have a working theory that to be an enjoyable place to walk, every block needs at least three interesting things. Here is proof that those things can be VERY small – and that adults might not even see them! This is a tiny homestead nestled under a front yard evergreen tree. We only found it because it was listed on a neighbourhood scavenger hunt, and even then, we walked past it several times.

Making your neighbourhood a better place doesn’t have to be all about holding big events, or spending any money. It really can be the littlest things that show someone cares enough about their neighbours to do something just to bring them a little joy!

If you’re looking for a starting point to make your neighbourhood a better place, I will leave you with just one piece of advice: focus on the positive. When your neighbourhood is struggling, as virtually all do in one way or another, the temptation is to solve problems. The trouble is that often those problems are almost impossible to completely solve, no matter how strong the will. It’s easy to get burnt out or demoralized because nothing seems to help.

In my experience, the most effective balm is to connect people. It might not fix the big systemic problems, but it builds relationships so that when bad things happen, no one feels quite so alone.

The quickest and easiest way to start to connect people is to give complete strangers something in common to talk about. I think all of the ideas I shared above fit the bill for that.

Even if creating whimsical displays to delight your neighbours isn’t your jam, just start by keeping an eye out for interesting, beautiful or unexpected things in your neighbourhood. You might be surprised at how many there are! I came across this faux-brick shed while participating in a spring clean-up in a back alley.

Image source: Google Street View

The people who live here can’t see the paint job from inside their house. They did it purely for the viewing pleasure of people going by in the lane. When you can frame things in that way, it can really change how you perceive your neighbours.

Years ago, I heard something on a Strong Towns podcast that completely resonated with my experience and has stuck with me ever since:

“A lot of neighbourhood associations coalesce around the fear of burglary, the fear of cars getting keyed, hoodlums running around rampant …. I don’t like energy that comes from being afraid. … I’ve always been more about positive steps.”

What could be more positive than haikus about birds on lamp posts? A community tree lovingly decorated by many hands? I’m not sure – but I have a feeling the lovely and interesting folks in my neighbourhood will keep coming up with new ideas!

Now, at first glance, these little things might seem frivolous. And individually, they might not seem like that big of a deal. But they are the starting point for the bigger things… like forming a committee to get a project off the ground, or even starting up a neighbourhood association!

They’re sort of like indicator species that prove people care and want to connect. And that’s the foundation you’ll need to build off of in order to eventually tackle the big stuff together.

TTFN,

Glenelm Gal