Building Neighbourhood Connections in Arch Hill.

Arch Hill is a small central Auckland suburb sandwiched between Great North Road and the North Western Motorway.  Perched on a hill, it is filled largely with early twenthieth century workers cottages and smaller bungalows.  It is one of these that Victoria Dawson-Wheeler, husband Jesse and daughter Hazel bought late in 2011.  A month or so after moving in, however, Victoria had not yet met one neighbour.  Wanting Hazel to “grow up in a place where people are connected”, she and her family started knocking on doors to say “hi”.

Initial surprise softened quickly and doorstep conversation flowed.  “That’s it!”, thought Victoria, “You have to open doors to build connections”.  Very quickly, the idea for a local newsletter was born.

So Victoria drew up a flyer inviting people to sign up to receive Arch Hill News (AHN) electronically. Responses were initially very slow.  Ten or so after the first week.  Then suddenly 40.  By the time Issue One of AHN was distributed in January 2012 the number of subscribers was pushing 100.  Yay! Victoria celebrated at local café Kokako and which led to Issue Two including a subscriber only ‘free quinoa cookie with your coffee purchase’!

AHN is a free fortnightly e-newsletter that profiles local people and businesses, covering living, food and interesting things happening in the area.  After initially being told that Arch Hill is too small to generate interesting stuff, the newsletter has so far included a wide range of articles and stories – from Banksy-like graffiti, to unknown/hidden local mountain bike trails, Laughter Yoga, a missing (and found) much loved cat and world champion boxer Torpedo Billy, who was born locally in James Street in 1862.

It’s accompanied by a Facebook page.  And with Issue 7 just out, AHN email subscribers are now close to 400!

Victoria attributes its success so far to showcasing the positive, and always trying to give rather than ask for things from the community.  Since Kokako came to the party with their cookie contribution, AHN has given away Whoopie cakes, coffees and plates of tapas; all as a way of celebrating the ingenuity and community mindedness of those supportive local businesses.  Every partnership formed between AHN and a local business, adds to the credibility of the newsletter and, likewise raises the profile of the local business within the neighbourhood.  The magic goes both ways!

Recently Victoria gathered six local businesses together to create a box of goodies, worth close to $1000 to give awayin a prize draw for those who got involved in the ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ project Victoria initiated for Neighbours Day.

Love Thy Neighbour was a kind of Secret Santa for neighbours, except it didn’t have to be secret. Victoria invited residents to contact her if they wanted to be involved, then matched them with another household who had also signed up.  People were invited to share a little bit about their household if they wanted to (a flat of three, a couple with four year old twins, someone with a dog named Dog).  Each household was matched with another household, so the potential was to meet at least two households that live nearby and gift something nice to each other.  “It’s the first step in getting to know someone without being intense and awkward,” says Victoria.

The idea attracted interest from local and national press as well as over 60 locals.  During the week leading up to Neighbours day, Victoria hosted a neighbours breakfast at her home to launch Love Thy Neighbour.  Tamati Coffey from TVNZ Breakfast broadcast live from 6.30-9am so it was an early start with all the camera crew arriving at 5am to set up! Great fun was had though, with 50-60 neighbours coming by over the course of the morning (the oldest Robert at 70, the youngest, Piata-Aria at just 6 weeks).

Luckily Victoria had asked Kokako to help out with catering and they pitched in with coffees and freshly baked blueberry muffins.  The Grey Lynn Butcher chipped in too with a couple of kilos of bacon, Art of Produce brought around an enormous basket of fresh fruit, and neighbours brought with them still warm croissants, gingerbread, banana bread and scones.  People were even spotted people exchanging recipes! It was a Monday morning feast!  And lovely for everyone to meet each other ahead of the Love Thy Neighbour celebration.

So then, the weekend: for Love thy Neighbour locals made some huge efforts – lots of baking, treats for pets, plants, garden produce, chalk board graffiti, access to a Warriors season pass for a week and a cocktail lime tree (check that one out here)  were transported secretly and not-so-secretly around the narrow streets. So much thought went into the choices and presentation!  There are now loads of happy pictures on the Facebook page and plenty of notes about how awesome those involved felt too.  So awesome in fact that many gave not once but twice – back to the household that gifted them, as well as to their assigned one.

What happens next is up to individuals, Victoria says.  Clearly plenty of neighbours are connecting by name and some already have plans to connect again while some prefer to remain anonymous, enjoying their random act of kindness.

AHN continues to grow – not just as a publication but also local business and community connections.  Just recently  AHN has linked people together to form a local dog walking group (facilitated by another local), while a mums and bubs group is in the pipeline and a campaign for an upgrade to the local playground is on its way.  Not only that but all this great local info may well be on a website in the near future – watch this space. Meantime, sign up here.

Intent:

Arch Hill News is about connecting local people by profiling people and businesses in the local area. Love Thy Neighbour was a focused effort at connecting by gifting something nice to someone who lives nearby

Learnings:

· Sometimes good things start slowly and then move at a pace.  Victoria set herself a numbers goal – if less than 10 subscribed she would let the idea go.  Nice try and all that.

· Even very small areas have a lot to offer.  A prediction that the news from Arch Hill would soon dry up because it is such a small relatively unknown area not been fulfilled, in fact if anything the opposite is true.

· Giving is the key.  Rather than asking for something, this newsletter is all about what it can give.  That is what has attracted so many people in a short period of time.  Conversely, of all the giveaways, very few are taken up. Locals like the idea that they could take up such offers if they chose to, and that local businesses are prepared to offer them in the first place.  It’s a mutually satisfying thing!

· Honesty goes a long way – ‘fessing up to nerves in the days before TVNZ came to Victoria’s house was a key factor in over 50 people coming out early on a very wet morning to support  and promote Neighbours Day and Love Thy Neighbour.

Outcomes

· The local economy is stronger because people know what is going on and are encouraged to step into spaces they might not know about.  It’s a form of social economy too – after Love Thy Neighbour people know a little bit more about others and are willing to support each other more – like providing new mums and dads with evening meals, for example.

· Catalysed by AHN as an example and noticing the willingness of others around them has encouraged other locals to not only put their ideas out there too but to make them happen.

· Residents, business and Arch Hill lovers have an increased positive awareness of their local area.  They also know other local people by name.  The facelessness of the city is dissolving here – houses and businesses contain real people and these people say ‘hi’ to one another.

· Getting to know one another also means not only do people feel safer and more secure but the community is safer and more secure – there are many eyes on the streets of Arch Hill now and locals can spot a stranger because they know who lives there.  And who doesn’t.

·The more we do locally the stronger and more resilient our communities are – economically, socially, culturally.  This may have been expected but now it is being demonstrated.

Contact

Victoria Dawson-Wheeler

archhillnews@gmail.com

Story by Victoria Dawson-Wheeler and Denise Bijoux

April 2012