I’ve lived in many places, but I’ve only ever established deep roots and felt truly at home in two of them. Why is it that some neighborhoods have a sense of community where regular neighborly interactions, activities, and support elicit a feeling of connection, while other places are unfriendly, isolated, detached, and sterile? Is it the people themselves? Their culture? The weather? The layout—designed for cars or pedestrians? The size—the bigger the neighborhood, the less likely you are to invest emotionally in saying “Hi” to everyone you come across?
The village of Rossett in Wales where I grew up was a tight-knit community. Built before the days of cars, the layout of homes was compact and front doors opened to the street. We didn’t drive, we walked everywhere, which meant we stopped and talked to neighbors doing their gardening, exchanged greetings and news with other pedestrians, and noticed if someone had not been seen for a few days. We were lumped together, surrounded by empty farmland, connected whether we liked it or not.
Our house was on the main road, next to the church, so everyone walked past us on their way to school, the shops, church, the post office, the pub, and the river. We shared gossip across garden fences, shopping at the village grocery store, or at the bus stop waiting for the double-decker to go to town.
I’ve been back and it really hasn’t changed much. At 3 p.m., many moms, dads, older siblings, and grandparents could be seen waiting to pick up kids from school to walk them home; these same adults would come back later with cakes and refreshments and play badminton in the school hall, while others went to the pub to play dominoes and darts, or took summer-evening walks along the riverbank, maybe do some fishing.
Friendships are forged but rivalries exist, too, especially as the annual Village Fair approaches and people start jealously comparing their gardens. There are contests for the most fragrant roses, the best dahlias, the biggest vegetables, for tastiest fruit cake, and horse jumping.
It’s not for everyone: while some people find friendliness and neighborliness, my mother —a transplanted big city girl—found it nosey and small-minded.
Here in Topanga, they know me at the post office, not well, but sometimes they ask how I’m doing or if my daughter is on a trip. If I drop by the library, there’s a good chance I’ll know someone there, not just at the Friday knitting group, but at the Peace Alliance group meeting.
There are always familiar faces when I go for a walk on one of the local trails, and if I’m with certain friends, more extraverted than I am, I will be introduced to any passers-by whom I don’t yet know. There are soccer games, Topanga Days, Theatricum plays, something for everyone. Our dogs recognize other Topanga dogs.
Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga is dispersed with homes built up and down steep hillsides. It’s not safe to walk on the narrow canyon roads because residents are dependent on the car to go anywhere. Nevertheless, I think most would agree that there is a feeling of neighborliness. It seems to be the right size and its hippy origins still echo freely. Roots start growing when you have a kid or volunteer at community events.
For me, first there were the baby groups and once a week we’d meet at each other’s homes, help each other out; then toddler groups and we’d meet at the playground or for short walks; then once our kids were enrolled in kindergarten, we met on Friday afternoons after school at a big picnic table at the state park where our kids climbed trees and we forgot all about them as we talked and laughed.
This continued throughout the school years, and now that we are empty nesters, we still meet and hike regularly. When my husband died and the memorial was held at the community center, not only did friends and neighbors come and help with the setup, decorations, and food preparation, but residents I didn’t know came along to help.
There’s a community orchestra, the Topanga Symphony, that has presented three free concerts a year since 1982. I’m one of many who help with baking and refreshments offered at concert intermissions. There’s also the monthly Sages dinner where a group of hardworking volunteers makes a three-course meal for the seniors. They feed up to 100 people on a modest budget. It’s heartwarming. It’s vital.
I have fond memories of the village fair long ago, of watching my parents play badminton with their neighbors, of playing with friends on farms, of riding horses along country lanes, of watching the River Alyn flow under the village bridge on its way to the sea. I consider myself very lucky to have lived in Rossett, Wales as a child and Topanga as an adult.
Thank you, community!
By Andrea Ehrgott