Neighbourhood Watching

After recently being stranded in the stunning beach town of Byron Bay in some not-so-stunning circumstances, Nancy Merlo ponders how the Inner West would cope if disaster struck.


It was meant to be an Australia Day long weekend of sun and surf but as I flew into Byron Bay the wind blew in as well, the rain started to pelt down and suddenly I couldn’t walk a metre down the street without my clothes being soaked through. Umbrellas were useless and soon branches began to fall from trees, which were cracking under the angry assault of Mother Nature.

Turning on the television, I realised things were only going to get worse as the storms that had already flooded cities all over Queensland moved south. Towns like Lismore that are a mere hour away from Byron were being evacuated, all flights were cancelled and then the power went out. I was stranded, in the dark.

Unable to trade, most restaurants and shops closed their doors. Meanwhile as I stood watching a one-way convoy of cars scramble to get out of town, old episodes of Man vs. Wild popped into my mind. What would Bear Grylls do? All I could think of was finding a torch and stocking up on snacks (Nutella counts as an end-of-days food requirement, right?). What I didn’t count on was the kindness I experienced from so many strangers, one woman staying in an apartment above mine even offered to share her dinner – in case I hadn’t thought ahead and picked up that Nutella before buckling down for the night.

Of course, this wasn’t a doomsday scenario – 24 hours later the power came back on and eventually the sun came out and the airport re-opened so I was able to fly home, albeit three days late. However, the whole incident had me wondering a couple of things: firstly, what did people do in the dark ages of no electricity?! And secondly, would Inner West locals be as generous if, say, a cyclone hit Haberfield?

Inner Western suburbs are often described as “village-like” but how many of us would really band together like villagers to help each other out in the event of a disaster, or even offer to share our dinner with a neighbour who didn’t quite make it down to IGA before the hail started? Never having faced such a crisis at home here in the Inner West, I did wonder if that kind of neighbourly spirit only exists in hippy beach towns and rural communities.

As Neighbour Day approaches on Sunday 31st March, I asked around and discovered that indeed many locals do get along well with their neighbours. Maria Zarro, a resident new to Five Dock, said, “In the short time I’ve been here, I have been blown away by how friendly, natural and helpful Five Dock people are. I don’t quite believe this sort of thing still exists in Sydney.”

But Maria’s disbelief isn’t exactly unfounded. Forming friendly neighbourly relationships takes work when you’re living in a cosmopolitan city like Sydney – where anonymity can be yours if you want it – which is why Neighbour Day founder Andrew Heslop urges people to use the annual event this year as a catalyst to start a great relationship with their fellow local residents that will last all year round. “You don’t have to be best friends but you should know how to quickly reach each other in an emergency,” he says.

While Andrew believes that the Inner West, particularly his own community in Petersham, is very well connected he observes, “Communities are only as strong as the people who live in them and to have a well connected, informed and supportive community you need to shop local and get involved.”

For those of you who aren’t sure how to reach out to your neighbours or “get involved”, Andrew says the secret weapon is – surprise, surprise – food! “It’s amazing how a cake, biscuits or even a barbecue can break the ice and bring people together. MasterChef has been excellent for Neighbour Day because it’s encouraged us all to be better cooks… Host a street party and get your neighbours involved!” he says.

The more I consider Andrew’s words, the more I realise how right he is. It was the simple offering of food from the woman in Byron Bay that made me feel a little more secure even in disastrous circumstances. There’s no reason why this kind of generous and helpful attitude towards others shouldn’t be your approach to your neighbours in daily life, even when there is no imminent disaster.

After all, you never know when you may run out of Nutella and need to go a knockin’ next door.

If you’d like to host your own Neighbour Day party download free invitations, posters, name tags and a how-to guide at www.neighbourday.org.