Breaking bread, breaking ice – Kingston style
It took the great ice storm of 1998 to bridge the town-gown gap on my street – that and hot chili. Fourteen years later, the tradition lives on.
My neighbour Julia Clark remembers the storm well. “The electricity was out for days. The street was impassable with downed trees, and neighbours had begun to share what they had. Calamity brought us together.”
Matt and Sue Brigden, who live 10 houses away, had a generator, and so they were sharing power. Julia and her husband Bob still had a natural gas line operating, and so they were sharing their stove. “But we also had students on the street who were stranded by the storm,” says Julia. “So we fed them pots of chili.”
Since then, the tradition has morphed into an annual fall event designed to let students and families in our neighbourhood get to know each other.
Neighbours make up 14 enormous pots of chili (spicy, sweet, meat-based and vegetarian), with lots of desserts (lemon squares, banana cake, and chocolate-chip cookies) and fresh buns from Pan Chancho bakery. Invités are asked to bring a bowl, utensils, and a cup – with one free beer going to every student of age who wants one. Some students bring food as well, so the thing has the feel of a giant potluck. To our amazement, everything is eaten. The atmosphere is playful, genteel, and the age of the revelers ranges from newborns to seniors.
The event takes place on the front lawn of an old triplex, with a massive tarp set up in case of rain. Everyone gets a peel-off name-tag on arrival. And Queen’s students who live on the street for three seasons of the year mingle with the men, women, and children who live here year ’round.
About 75 people attended this year’s street party, held on October 4 – an evening so balmy the mosquitoes returned. At one picnic table, three third-year students – housemates Andrew Ferizovic, Jackson Turner, and Brendan Huston – sat having a beer with a neighbour some 60 years their senior, while a dozen kids gamboled on the porch or played foosball under the tutelage of two other students. “I love it,” said Ferizovic. “It brings the street together. And we actually eat something good – as opposed to chicken and brown rice.”
Matt Brigden is a key organizer who hand-delivers invitations in mid-September. He and other neighbours set out bales of hay as seats and picnic tables for all the food – with chili lights, husks of corn, cut flowers, and pumpkins to set the autumn mood.
For Matt, the neighbourhood party/ chili fest is a simple concept that works. “It’s a kind gesture and it’s returned,” he says, adding that the usual town/gown antagonisms over noise and parties are virtually non-existent on the street.
“One year,” Matt says, “it just poured, and we all huddled under the tent. That was the best party of all the ones we’ve had.”
For Julia, the fact that the party is held early in the academic year is critical: “It’s a way of letting the students know that we’re here, that we’re human beings. And it works the other way, too. We learn who the students are” – their studies, hometowns, aspirations.
When Julia and Bob go away on vacation, they leave the keys to their van with their young neighbours. “If you need the car to shop for groceries, help yourself,” they tell them. In return, the students take in the mail and check the house. As good neighbours will.
At the chili-fest one year, the police came around in a cruiser to what they thought was a student party that had spilled out onto the street. Bob Clark, now 80 years old and on whose lawn the party was unfolding, walked over to explain that this was, in fact, a neighbourhood party. The best kind. “Right,” the officer said, “but stay off the sidewalk.” Towners and gowners alike, we complied.
Next year, we might close the street at the north and south ends and get out the sticks for some street hockey. Maybe we’ll call it “chili con shinny”.
Kingston writer Lawrence Scanlan is the author of 17 books. His latest is A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Philanthropy (Douglas & McIntyre). -- Ed.