Who lives next door to you? We challenged five writers to find out.
Quiz: You’re getting the lift in your block of flats when one of your neighbours gets in. Do you a) greet them by name and ask them over for a glass of wine later, or b) mumble ‘hi’ then look at your phone until the doors open?
Let’s be honest, for many Londoners the answer is the second one. Time Out’s 2016 City Index survey showed that only a quarter of us are friends with the people next door. In fact, it’s a fair assumption that more of us know whether our neighbours like having loud sex on Sunday mornings (oi, oi!) than know their full names. The stereotype that Londoners are bad at human contact exists for a reason, but many of us do crave community. It’s just that we move so often and live such busy lives that befriending a stranger isn’t a priority. No wonder more than half of Londoners say they sometimes feel lonely.
We challenged five people who’d never hung out with their neighbours to try and get to know them. Yes, it did cause a few painfully awkward moments – one of them was basically stood up – but they all said it was worth it. So, let’s use this Valentine’s Day to consider our relationships with the people physically – not just romantically – closest to us. And surely a cup of tea with a neighbour is healthier than a 30-minute chat with a stranger on Tinder? Kate Lloyd
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff meets her neighbour Emily
Lives In an ex-council flat in Peckham.
Previous neighbour status Awkward smiles and the odd cup of tea when someone is locked out.
There is a rustling outside my window early one Saturday morning, then a quick, insistent knock on the pane. I have three theories: evangelicals, who I thought I’d scared off the last time; a hungover flatmate who can’t find their key; or Something Bad. What I’m not expecting, as I tentatively draw my curtain, is a little old woman with a wrinkled smile peering into my bedroom. She’s wielding shears and gesturing because she wants a cutting from a boring-looking tree in our front garden. It’s the first interaction I’ve had with any of my neighbours and I’m fully bemused; in all the other places I’ve rented, the only time I’ve spoken to my neighbours has been to pick up a missed Asos delivery.
‘It’s a grapefruit tree,’ says my next-door neighbour Emily a few weeks later. I’ve made the leap: I’ve introduced myself to her, and invited her and her flatmate Phoebe round for dinner. Emily is explaining that the old lady, a keen horticulturist, helped her lay out her garden. The tree cuttings make more sense now. Like me, Emily, 27, and Phoebe, 26, live in a rented flat. Unlike me, they’ve made a decent effort to get to know the community and, apparently, the native flora.
‘At Halloween we went knocking on all the doors,’ says Phoebe. ‘We might be a bit too old for it, but it was fun. This block has such a mixture of ages and people living it.’ They have more guts than I do. It took ages before I could muster the courage even to tap on their door. As I learn, a property developer bought the ex-council flat last year, and did it up: then the girls moved in. Naturally, the conversation turns to the hottest topic in town: gentrification.Before Emily and Phoebe arrived, a man called Sam had lived in the flat his whole life with his family.This is the only faintly awkward bit of the evening, as we try to discuss the impact we’re having on the locals of Peckham, many of whom are desperately fighting against ‘regeneration’ plans that will no doubt see more of our kind mopping up their homes.
We’ve mutually decided that we can offset some of the negatives by continuing to offer our cuttings to the local gardening fans and reaching out to the community when we can. Phoebe, a keen activist, invites me to Peckham Pride, a march fighting against immigration raids, detentions and deportations in the area. Even so, the next neighbour date we have planned isn’t quite so serious: we’re going to binge-watch ‘First Dates’ and drink wine. It’s lovely to have friends next door.
James Manning meets his neighbour Libby
Lives In a flat in a converted pub in Whitechapel.
Previous neighbour status Neighbours: do they even exist?
My building is full of ghosts. Not literally (though it was once a Victorian pub, so spirits aren’t out of the question), but in almost two years of living in a block of seven flats in Whitechapel, I’ve hardly even glimpsed my so-called neighbours. Although I hear the lift moving up and down and occasionally find weird stuff lying around in the hallways, sightings of people are extremely rare. Sometimes it feels like I might as well be sharing the whole place with just my flatmate.
My mum and dad are friendly with most of the street where I grew up in south-west London, but things are different here among the transient young professionals on the edge of the City. No one bothers to get to know anybody – what’s the point when you might only have a year-long tenancy? But I’m determined to open a channel to these so-far-not-friendly ghosts. Derek Acorah isn’t available and knocking on people’s doors seems a bit confrontational, so plan C is a friendly letter in each neighbour’s postbox. ‘I’d love to invite you round for a drink or a cup of tea and chat to you about living here,’ I write. Sounds fairly non-threatening, right?
Except that out of six flats, I get just two replies: one from Hazel next door and one from Libby in the three-bed at the top.
From there it’s a neighbourly edition of ‘First Dates’. Hazel does numbers for a charity. She’s been living ten feet away for a year and we’ve never set eyes on each other. Over a cup of tea, she listens politely while I ramble on about bins, the company that manages the block and the impending thrill of Crossrail. I think we’ve got on well, but she doesn’t reply to my follow-up text asking her if we can take her photo. (Sorry, Hazel. See you around?)
After that, I’m not confident about meeting Libby from upstairs. But we chat for an hour-and-a-half about the highs and lows of Whitechapel life, her job in Westminster and the Kafkaesque experience of picking up recycling bags from Tower Hamlets Council. It turns out that living on top of someone means you have a fair bit in common by default: bitching about domestic frustrations and swapping local tips. Libby even seems interested in my photobook of East End shopfronts. Or maybe she’s just really polite. Will good neighbours become good friends? Will we team up and take on the management company? Or will we fall out over my flatmate leaving her bike in the hall? Who knows – but it feels good to be on friendly terms with at least one of my fellow inmates. Now to scare up the rest of the ghosts…
Rhian Daly meets her neighbour Nick
Lives In a terraced house in Walthamstow.
Previous neighbour status Entirely based on signing for parcels.
There are few occasions in adult life where you have to go up to a stranger and ask them to be your friend. So the idea of knocking on my neighbours’ doors is terrifying. In all the many places I’ve lived in London, I have never, ever got to know the people next door. I pace up and down my living room for an hour before I finally force myself out on to my street.
A few doors down, I meet Nick. He looks concerned when I ask if I can ‘run something by him’, but he agrees to share a drink at his house in a few days’ time. On the evening we meet up, I pick up a bottle of wine in the hope it will lubricate conversation if things are a bit awkward. I needn’t have worried. I get on with Nick and his partner Pamela better than I could have hoped. By the time I leave, we’re already talking about meeting up again.
Unfortunately, a few days later I find out that I have to move out of my rented house. The instability of London’s housing market is a major factor in why people don’t know their neighbours. But wouldn’t it be nicer if, for however long you do live in your area, you could be surrounded by people you know, even just a little?
Salma Haidrani meets her neighbour Jasminay
Lives In a flat in a street of terraced houses in Camden.
Previous neighbour status Fumbling for keys and avoiding eye-contact at all costs.
My attempts to meet my neighbours start promisingly. An Australian bloke moved in next door to me before Christmas, and I decide to set my sights on him. In fact, when I spot him on the stairwell through the peephole of my door after work one evening, I’m half tempted to jump out and say hi. Thankfully, I realise how weird that might look and manage to restrain myself.
A more natural opportunity to chat presents itself a few days later. He comes out to collect his Uber Eats as I’m on the way to grab dinner. He tells me he’s called Alex and I decide to bite the bullet and ask him out for a drink. We pin down a time to meet and I’m smug about my success. My days of awkward exchanges as I fish for my keys seem like they’re coming to an end. I think to myself: I wish I’d done this years ago.
Except that Friday rolls around, I knock on Alex’s door and no one answers, even though all the lights are on. Then I hear him chuckling with one of his flatmates about pretending not to be in. I don’t think he realises I can hear him. I feel like I’ve been stood up. But more than that, I didn’t believe that Londoners really were so unfriendly – until now. I feel a little deflated. (And vengeful: I wonder if he’d miss his mail?) Undeterred, I continue my hunt and knock on the door of a flat along the corridor. My second attempt is a lot more successful. I end up catching Jasminay, a young working mum, right before she heads to work. We go for pizza the following Saturday. It feels like a blind date but one without the awkward silences. We talk about everything from reality TV to ‘Peppa Pig’.
On paper, our lives might seem quite different – Jasminay married young and has a one-year-old whereas my biggest life decision right now revolves around whether my lunch is Instagrammable or not. But we both agree that our neighbourhood could do with more of a sense of community. She might have babysitting help from her family, but she wouldn’t mind if a neighbour happened to drop by. At this rate, it’s likely to be me as we’ve already made plans to catch a film. One thing I have learned is that we’re all guilty of not making more of an effort. Sure, it takes a lot of guts – and some rejection – but at least now I can put some names to faces. Maybe I’ll give another neighbour a knock this week…
Natasha Wynarczyk meets her neighbour Tom
Lives In a flat in Docklands.
Previous neighbour status Sometimes hears people moving around in the flat upstairs.
Most of the flats around me are buy-to-let or Airbnb rentals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who lives on my floor, let alone spoken to them, in the whole four years I’ve lived in my flat, so knocking on doors feels intrusive. That’s when one of my mates suggests using dating apps with the distance set as small as possible. I’m happily engaged, so it feels a bit weird, but I get two Happn matches from neighbours willing to hang out.
Thomas, a 29-year-old who works in finance and lives in the next building on my street, comes over one evening. I feel a bit nervous about it and it seems he feels the same way, messaging me a few hours before to double-check I’m not a killer. But I really enjoy meeting him. He’s friendly and easy to chat to. He’s had the same neighbour experiences I have. ‘It doesn’t really go beyond small talk in the lift,’ he says. ‘I don’t know anybody by name.’
I ask him why he thinks this is. ‘There’s no focal point for the community,’ he says. ‘It feels like an area that’s a stop-gap for young professionals: nobody is putting down roots here.’ He has had some random encounters with neighbours, though. He tells me a story about a guy who lived near his old flat on the Isle of Dogs who used to knock on his door on a regular basis and ask if he could ‘borrow’ a beer. ‘There was no way you could avoid him,’ he says. He wishes he knew his neighbours better: ‘It can feel a bit isolating round here, like I’m living in a hotel.’
And what about my other neighbour? He messaged later that evening asking if I could just send him some questions so that we could pretend we’d met up, basically defeating the whole point of this feature. But meeting Thomas has inspired me to meet more of my neighbours, I’m just not sure if they want to meet me. I may have to try the beer-borrowing strategy.
Portraits: Scott Chasserot
Fancy making some new friends? Check out the Tea With Strangers initiative.