Five hundred and thirty-four


I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog debating how friendly people in Toronto are, including having a very unsuccessful attempt at walking down the street, smiling at people and saying hello (unsuccessful in the fact that no one smiled back and I almost got in a fight with a girl who thought I was hitting on her boyfriend).  In the suburbs when I grew up, smiling at strangers was normal.  What I did find was that within the greater city that is Toronto, there are smaller communities who act a lot more like neighbourhoods.  People speak to each other there.  There are local cafes, shops, parks, festivals, etc.  The same people are around and those people get to know each other’s faces, and perhaps names.  In a smaller scale, my neighbours in my house/apartment are generally great.  Over the past few years that I’ve lived here, we have chatted, helped each other out, collected mail, my neighbour below me even gave us his old barbecue and patio furniture when he bought new ones.

What happened to me Monday morning, though, was truly proof that there are neighbourhoods in a big city such as Toronto, where people look out for each other and care about what is happening.  It was around 8:30 am when I heard the doorbell ring at my boyfriend’s house where I stayed the night.  I was still in bed and often the doorbell ends up being someone selling or preaching something door-to-door, so I almost didn’t get up to answer it.  But then I heard fairly frantic voices outside the front door of his apartment in the house, and I could hear the small beep of a fire alarm going off somewhere in the building.  I could hear policemen coming through the front door and a girl’s voice saying there was a lot of smoke and two people unconscious in one of the apartments.  I quickly put on some clothes and stuck my head outside.  “There’s a fire in the basement apartment,” says one of the neighbours standing outside.  I go inside to grab my keys and come outside to wait.

Turns out the girl in the basement apartment passed out after putting something on the stove and the pot was burning.  The firemen and police helped the girl outside (who from what I heard was on very strong painkillers combined with alcohol) and woke the guy who was staying there.  They removed the pot, the girl was taken to the hospital, and all was fine besides the lingering smoke effects.  The amazing bit is how all of the neighbours reacted.  The one girl in the building was concerned about the fire alarm not turning off, so went to check on her neighbour, reacted quickly, called the police, and alerted the other people in the building.  Then, as we were all standing outside waiting for the firemen to check everything out, the lady who lives next door came by to ask if she could make anyone tea or coffee while we waited.  Another concerned person who lives in the neighbourhood came by to see if we were ok.

There was a lot of response from the cops, the firemen, the people who live in the house, and the neighbourhood in general.  I felt safe and supported and that if something were to happen to me, someone would come help.  It’s nice to think this, especially with the topic of random shootings being so present in the media right now.  I’d like to think the kind people of the world who look out for each other far outweigh those who want to cause harm.  Maybe I should continue to try to smile at my neighbours.  They might not respond outwardly, but hopefully it will let them know there are strangers who are looking out for them in this big city of Toronto.

One hundred and seventy-six

The friendly neighbour

If someone walked by you in the street, smiled and said “good afternoon”, what would you think?  How would you react?  In the suburbs where I grew up, or a small town, you would smile back at them and say something nice.  In Toronto, though, everyone lives in their own bubble and are usually in a rush.  Rarely does someone look you in the face as they walk by.  Or they are talking on their cell phone or listening to their iPod.  The people who do say hello are usually tourists, crazy or want something from you.

I am just as bad a culprit as anyone else here.  I don’t like making small talk with the bank teller.  I hate when people are walking slow and in my way when I’m trying to get somewhere.  I usually have my headphones in.  I’m suspicious of what people want from me when they say hello or start to approach me.  I’m not proud of this, but living in cities most of my life has made me this way.

They say it takes less energy to smile than it does to frown and that smiling releases endorphins, natural pain killers and serotonin which changes our mood for the better and makes us feel good.  So, if this is the case, then we should all be smiling more and being friendlier to the people we encounter in the city every day.


Parkdale is a largely working-class area of Toronto, with a number of low-income apartments, new immigrants, artists and young professionals.  There are quite a few boarding houses for out-patients with mental illnesses.  The main street is becoming a place to hang out for young people because of the large amount of bars, cafes, shopping and restaurants that have come to the area over the past few years.  It is an eclectic group of people who live, work and walk the streets of my neighbourhood – yes, this is where I live and I love Parkdale.

But it is not somewhere where you talk to people on the street.  If they aren’t crazy, they will think you are crazy, or they are suspicious of your motives.  And that is why I spent the day walking the area, smiling, saying hello and trying to make contact with my neighbours.  These were some of the reactions I got:

  • “Do you have a cigarette?” he asked me, when I smiled at the man who always hangs out at the end of my street.
  • Most people kept their eyes down so I couldn’t even catch their eye to smile at them.
  • I walked past a day camp and smiled at the kids, then stopped because I realized I might look creepy doing that.
  • Most men reacted like I was trying to hit on them.
  • Most women looked at me strangely.
  • A lady with her boyfriend gave me an evil look.  I’m not trying to pick up your boyfriend!
  • I tried to catch a man’s eye as I walked by him, but he was starring at my chest!
  • Not one person smiled back at me.

It was really hard, but actually made me feel great.  The smiling did brighten my day.  And I really observed who my neighbours are.  But it did make me sad.  Why are we all so suspicious of each other?  What happened to community?  Or is community now defined differently than where you live?  Do I just need to accept that unless there is some familiarity, I will not get a smile from a stranger?