Four Wise Men - Learning from our oldest neighbours

Fredericton is more or less Stars Hollow. It is like a caricature of a Big Town, with more quirky personalities than you could script (exhibit A: Meet our Mayor (23 years in office) and The Blogger). The classic, northeastern aesthetic of the place only adds to the sense that this is a giant film set. Some of my favourite characters are those that have stuck it out the longest. Here are a few encounters.

Gilmore Girls House in fictional Stars Hollow - CC image by Flickr user Mikani 

Gilmore Girls House in fictional Stars Hollow - CC image by Flickr user Mikani 

The First Wise Man

One of the characters that animates this place is David, our representative in the provincial government.

David is the kind of elected official that democracy was invented for. He's a guy who has been knocking on doors and attending community events long before he could have had expected to run for office, let alone hope to win a seat. I can say this quite confidently because he belongs to the Green Party. Before that, he worked for the Conservation Council (for longer than I've been alive) organizing and educating across the province.

So people had become familiar with David's face at community meetings and events. He'd show up at lectures and write opinion pieces all the time. And after all those decades of conversations with neighbours, he's finally IN the system. But despite the coveted job, he's still David. It's almost comical how easy it is for me to finally have the ear of an elected official. Back in the old days, I had to leave phone messages and write letters to my elected officials. Now, I can just walk downtown and knock on the door of the old home that now houses his constituency office. I can also host community meetings or events there since he makes the place available to constituents (his philosophy: "Well, they're paying for it..."). The whole situation feels too wholesome to be real. Just yesterday, David gave me a lift home. Talk about service.

I want you to meet David because whatever your political stripe, he's an inspiration. He's withstood 30 years of being the minority voice in the room and shows there is no true replacement for putting in the time and investing in relationships. David's story tells me how long it can take to win the trust of change-resistant people and that even when you do, you may need to wait for ideas and sentiments to reach a broader crescendo, regardless of your personal timeline or effectiveness.

I went to speak to David last week, and much of that conversation was informed by a meeting I'd had with two gentleman several days prior.

Two Wise Men

I've been lucky enough to work with some rad seniors that love livable cities. A couple weeks back, I convened with two of them to talk history. Don and Hart have known each other for decades and have witnessed 30 years of change in our downtown. I found myself sitting on the floor between the two in Hart's beautiful old home scribbling notes all over a tourist map of our city as they explained how time had shaped it. We had tea and cookies.

I learned about a block in our city that used to be a destination for Jewish immigrants. I learned about the stores that had come and gone on our main streets. I learned about proposals throughout the years to raze entire downtown blocks to build brutalist megastructures. I learned about the people that saved and restored those blocks. I learned about the aftermath of the one-way designations to major downtown streets. We could have talked for much longer.

One of the challenges I face as a newcomer to Fredericton is a lack of context. I don't know all the sacred cows and the past battles of the city. Nor have I seen where decline is persistent or a recent phenomenon. Speaking to people like Don and Hart who have cared about the city for a long time is helping me piece this together.

Radical Retirement - the Fourth

Don and Hart are actually friends of a friend. I met them through the activism of a previous boss, peer, and friend of mine, John.

John is a significantly influential person in the community. He has long been internationally recognized for his research, has received the Order of Canada (translation: Very Big Deal), and has worked tirelessly to transform this region (as a former president of the university, no less). The way I was introduced to him is: "See anything cool and smart happening around here? John's probably involved." We're lucky that our place has one of 'those people' - a straight-up effective and inspiring visionary. Now that he's in his older years, he wants to leave a legacy of walkable, age-friendly communities and it has been a delight to join him on that mission.

John's retirement makes me look lazy. He's out there using 70+ years of experience to not only get things done, but groom people to carry the torch. 

Why am I telling you this?

I could list a growing roster of older adult friends I've made this year that I'd love to recruit to Team Strong Towns. Since this is a largely online community, we may miss out on a lot of their wisdom on here. Tons of seniors are tech-savvy, but many would still prefer to read and work offline. So what I've learned from experience after great experience is just to go make friends with older people! They've been one of my richest sources of information and inspiration in trying to improve my city. And I like to think that they enjoy hanging out with me too.

Related: Have you seen any great examples of intergenerational living? When I someday have an income property, I'd love to dedicate an apartment or two to seniors who would be up for hanging out. Like we do.

Also related: If you're looking for a way to meet neighbours Chuck's talk with Dave Runyon on The Art of Neighboring is a great listen.

P.S. The learning-to-draw is coming along. Here's my first hand-lettered poster campaign to recruit more small business owners downtown.

The full set. Poster campaign for #handlettering

A photo posted by Gracen Johnson (@gracen) on

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013 (studying in the UK), she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.