Would your neighborhood pass the “cup of sugar” test?
In Canada, there is a race to find a new leader for the Conservative Party, held by Prime Minister Stephen Harper until his loss to Justin Trudeau in the last election. One of the candidates, Dr. Kellie Leitch, is running a Trump-style populist campaign, which of course means bashing the urban elites. In one of her interviews she complains about cities, as described by Ed Keenan in the Star:
…she moved out of Toronto because our city has “no sense of community,” and that in Clearview Township, “I know it’s fine if I walk next door and ask for a cup of sugar, they are going to give me a cup of sugar. It’s the neighbourly thing to do. Living in downtown Toronto as a resident, I would never go next door and ask my neighbour for a cup of sugar. It just wouldn’t happen.”
The funny thing is that the “cup of sugar” test is actually an urban phenomenon. According to Lara Rabinovitch, writing in Good,
The early rise of cities meant easier access to supplies, but neighbors lived in such close quarters—think tenement buildings or row houses—that there was a constant exchange of goods and services across the yard or through criss-crossing streets. Before the rise of the big box store era, knocking on a door and asking for that extra cup of sugar or dolling out surplus tomatoes from an abundant yard garden were part of the rhythms of life.
And in fact, the reaction from city dwellers (who totally abandoned the Conservative party in the last election) was swift- endless stories and tweets about how people in the city share, how it is one of the great things about living in the City.
In his article in the Star, Keenan describes how if he needs a tool, help building the neighborhood ice rink, or help in an emergency, there are always people willing to help. “I can’t remember any of us ever needing a cup of sugar, so I guess we can’t say for sure. But all my other experiences lead me to expect that if I needed sugar and asked, one of my neighbours would give it to me.”
Today, so few people bake that it is likely that a neighbour might not actually have a cup of sugar. They might also try and tell you about Gary Taube’s new book and offer you some fruit instead. Perhaps a cup of sugar is no longer the best indicator of neighbourhood friendliness.
When our kids were little, they were in and out of the house, constantly playing with friends across the street. Through one of those crazy coincidences in life and death, my wife’s father Bill was dying in one hospital and my father was in the hospital next door for a cancer treatment when he had a crisis and was rushed down the tunnel to the emergency room where Bill was. Both men died with in minutes of each other, a few beds apart.
With two parents to bury under two different rituals, we were pretty preoccupied, so the street moved in, the neighbours took those kids, fed them, got them to school and home, let us do what we had to do for nearly three days. Perhaps we were particularly lucky and close with our neighbours (it was an unusual street at the time, so many kids the same age).
But people like Leitch who consider city people aloof and unfriendly have clearly never looked closely at what is going on. There is endless helping of neighbours, borrowing of screwdrivers and ladders and snow shovels. There is walking of kids home from school and emergency baby sitting and an informal sharing economy. It is part of urban life.