When I first moved into this neighbourhood, I had heard about the mysterious local Brockton Neighbours Listserv and managed to get myself on it. Now I receive emails daily from my neighbours looking to borrow something, announcing local events or any other random thing that neighbours might want to broadcast to each other. I caught up with Farzana Doctor, a local author (her book Six Metres of Pavement was a finalist for the 2012 Toronto Book Award and won many other accolades) who also happened to start the Brockton Listserv.
■ : When did you start the listserv?
Farzana Doctor: It was August 2006. A few neighbours organized an informal potluck at the Shirley Street schoolyard and 20 people came. I circulated a sign-up sheet and the listserv was born.
■ : How many people are now on the listserv?
■ : Bring us back to when the listserv was first started. What needs prompted you to create it? What were you hoping to accomplish?
FD: I moved to the neighbourhood in winter 2003. I didn’t know many people, and had a sense that I’d probably stay here awhile. I wanted to know my neighbours and I’m less shy online. I hoped that people would begin conversations online that would extend to the sidewalks.
■ : I like the fact that living in a city you can be somewhat anonymous. There are so many people living out their different lives and most of the time they don’t care what you’re up to. But I think it’s natural when you settle down, you want to find out about some of the people around you. I feel like the listserv allows for connection between neighbours as well as the movement of goods or information, do you find that people have made friendships via the listserv?
FD: I think so. I have and others talk about having made these kinds of connections as well. Sometimes we create deep friendships but I think most neighbour relationships are about mutual support and assistance—keeping keys, sharing lawnmowers, watering plants when we’re away, keeping an eye out for the kids and pets. That being said, a listserv is a limited way of connecting. The people I know best are those who I stop to talk to on the street, the people with whom I’ve co-organized events, the other dogwalkers.
■ : From what I’ve realized a listserv is a very different form of communication. It’s like a classified ad you can have a conversation with and sometimes it even becomes a public forum. What are your thoughts on the type of communication a listserv offers?
FD: I think the listserv is best for sharing goods and information. It’s also good for inviting people to get together to talk about an issue. It’s not a very good forum for discussion. People miss tone in written communication and a few members have been careless or rude with their neighbourbours in discussions. My co-moderators, Gretel, Carina and I hate moderating the rude folks!
A side note—there is now a Facebook group for our neighbourhood. I’m not sure if discussions happen more smoothly there or not, but it does seem like a better (at least technologically) forum for longer conversations.
■ : The listserv also allows neighbours into an electronic form of theatre. Like when someone loses their cat and someone else finds it. We’re all witnesses to that. It’s a collective awareness of what’s happening in the hearts and minds of the people living around you. It can also be a call to action or like a flashmob when someone asks neighbours to come and lift something heavy out of their apartment. Is there any specific post or email that you remember really effecting you either emotionally or as a call to action?
FD: There have been so many message that make me feel like I have a a little bit of a sense of what’s going on with the people who live near me!
Here’s a personal anecdote: a few years ago I was going through a break-up and needed help moving furniture. It was a sad time for me and while I didn’t share that on the listserv, I did ask for help and received a number of kind offers. It feels good to know I can rely on the people around me if I need help.
■ : I think the most meaningful thing the listserv has done for me was to connect some of the residents in order to oppose the diesel trains running through our hood. (Arguably, it was this that allowed our neighbourhood to join others along the rails and really put a strong case together for electric trains in Toronto. I mean, GO transit / Metrolinx went from posting on their website about how bad electric trains were, to then the study for electrification, to (hopefully) implementing electric trains in the near future.) Did you ever think that the listserv would ever have the capability to make political change?
FD: I agree with your assessment that the listserv helped to mobilize us to get involved in the Clean Train Coalition. I think listservs are great for spreading information and bringing people together to organize themselves. On a smaller scale, we got speed humps on many streets by first talking about them on the listserv. We also organized an all-candidates about 8 years ago.
■ : Do you ever get tired of receiving email messages about people looking for apartments or lost cats?
FD: No way! These kinds of messages inspire people to help and connect. The only messages that tire me (and there are few of them) are from spammers or belligerent people.