Lisa Murphy Lamb, director of Loft 112. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Sprawlcast: Cultivating neighbourliness in East Village

Lisa Murphy Lamb discovers a neighbourhood of yes.’

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This past summer, I did something that was completely ordinary but struck me as significant at the same time.

This is all it was: I propped open the front door at Loft 112, in East Village, where The Sprawl has its office.

For almost a year, I had been coming here a few days a week and locking the door behind me. Meanwhile, if I worked at home, which I did most of the time, I was alone. My wife and kids would be at work and school. And I experienced something that will probably sound familiar to a lot of people after the past year and a half.

I felt cut off from the world.

It wasn’t good. There was more going on in my life than just the pandemic, but I started to despise life, struggling to shake what felt like an unshakable darkness. Alienation and despair marked my days.

But that summer day, with the sun shining, I ventured an open door. Propping open the door after a year of such relentless inwardness felt like a strike against despair. It felt hopeful.

I felt the possibility of reconnection—with others, and with myself.

I remember thinking: Who am I opening the door for? Who might wander in unexpectedly? How might they change me? Am I ready for such an encounter? It seemed to me that there were a host of questions in this one simple act of propping open the door. And it occurred to me, too, that it would be easy to rush past these questions and settle as quickly as possible into the routine of “normal” life, whenever it returned.

And sure enough, when I opened the door, the odd person would wander in, curious about the open door and the space. Loft 112 is a narrow live/work unit on the ground floor of an apartment building. It's a creative hive for writers and artists, and often there are art exhibitions on the walls.

One woman came in and told me a long story about an argument she’d just had on the CTrain. Another person had held an art show at Loft 112 a few years ago and wanted to tell me about it. One person was ready to put their life story down on paper, and was looking for a ghost writer.

With each of these conversations, even though they were small, I felt a sense of reconnection. I felt like I was plugging into a web of neighbourly relationships.

And that initial question has stayed with me: What does it mean to prop open the door and let life in? It’s an important question, it seems to me, at a time when it’s often easier to form community outside of the places we live—while neglecting relationships with the people who are right beside us, geographically.

The Sprawl is going to explore this in our new edition: The Mighty Neighbourly Edition. What does it mean to be a good neighbour? What are we doing to cultivate neighbourliness in Calgary—and what are we doing, consciously or unconsciously, to detract from it? How do we build meaningful local relationships at a time of profound disconnection?

Lisa Murphy Lamb has thought deeply about these questions—not just thought about them, but lived them. And it’s because of her that I was even in a place to consider this in the way that I have. Murphy Lamb is the director of Loft 112. And I’ve seen her extend hospitality in really interesting ways. Sometimes she does it by opening the door in a way that inspires others, like me, to do the same.

But she cultivates neighbourliness in other ways, too.

In addition to being the director of Loft 112, Lisa is an author, a teacher, a mentor. Earlier this year, she won the Sandstone City Builder Award for her contributions to the city. In this Sprawlcast, I sat down with Lisa for a conversation in my little office at Loft 112. Here's some of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

One of the interesting parts of working here is that people will walk by, peer in the window and then a few will wander up the stairs and knock on the door and kind of wander in. And everybody who comes in that way has the same question, which is: "What is this place?" How would you answer that question?

Well, I used to know how to answer this question, pre-pandemic. I don't quite know how to answer it these days, because I don't know what it is anymore. But my answer, pre-pandemic, was: It's a literary creative space, and it's a community space. So it's a space for people—whoever—to come in and be part of art or literary events, whether as an observer, part of the audience, or as a creator or a writer. To come and celebrate or create or to be part of someone's else's celebration or creation.

How did it get started?

I was a teacher with the Calgary school board at the start of my career and I taught for five years. And then I moved—I was married at the time, and I moved because my husband's work took us away. We lived in England and Houston, and I gave up my career and I had children and raised children. I stayed home full-time, but always was curious as to what I would do when I had the opportunity to go back to work.

When I was in Houston, I worked for an organization called Writers in the Schools. I loved the idea of maybe not going back as a full-time teacher but looking at being an educator in a different way. When I returned to Calgary, I started working for the Writer's Guild and supporting writers in the community around their summer program, Wordsworth—and really lacked space for anything outside of the two to three weeks I was working for the Writer's Guild.

So if I wanted to interview anybody, I didn't have a space. If the students wanted to meet up afterwards, I didn't have a space. And I started to hear that a lot of other writers also lacked space if they wanted to have an affordable fundraiser, or if they wanted to do a reading.

Bookstores and coffee shops and the library are all really great spaces to use, but if you were at a coffee shop, you still had to buy coffee the whole time you were there. And if you were at a library and working with teens and saying, "I want you to take chances," you would have to take chances while there were people sitting at the table with you.

And so I started to investigate the idea of a writers' house. I thought that's what I wanted to do when I got back into working again. I looked at different models from the U.K. and the U.S. and started investigating how I might make that happen in Calgary. And came up with Loft 112, but decided to open it up as more than just a writers' space.

What was the neighbourhood like in 2013, when you first opened?

The neighbourhood has always been fantastic. We stumbled across this—it was a live/work space—and the East Village was extraordinarily welcoming as a neighbourhood. I lived in a neighbourhood which was a neighbourhood of “no.” Anytime anything new happened, the neighbourhood was all up [in arms]—they just said “no” to everything. But when I moved here, it was a neighbourhood of “yes.” And so I felt really welcomed and really supported.

I got to know the people who were living here at the time. It's a really pedestrian neighbourhood, as you've probably noticed. And people were really curious and welcoming. They would stick their heads in and they would come in and say hello and wanted to know what was going on. And they came in and used the space. So it is a literary creative space but it's also a community space. We really have honoured trying to be part of the East Village community and we've made many great connections and done great projects with the neighbourhood here.

And did you plan that? Were you thinking this would be a space for the community? Or did that kind of just emerge organically as people were wandering in?

Probably a little bit of both. I didn't have a fully fledged idea when I opened. I was just really excited to have a space, to have it open. But my first year, I said it was going to be a year of “yes." And so, whatever happened or whichever opportunity was presented, I was going to say yes and embrace it. And so I didn't know that the East Village was going to be quite so warm and welcoming. But as soon as I realized it was, then I said “yes.”

I didn't come at it with the preconceived notion that I was going to connect—but I also know if you move a business into a neighbourhood, it's really important to get to know your neighbours. So that was part of my plan: get to know my neighbours. Then everything else that sprung from it was just because of the willingness of my neighbours to extend a hand.

The people who came in, and the neighbours you're talking about—we’re located right beside some seniors' towers. Is that who you’re talking about?

Yeah. It was mostly seniors. Primarily at that time it was all the seniors who lived in the buildings that have been here for years and decades.

Were people isolated in this community? Or was there this warm network of connections already?

One project that I got involved in really early was with ACAD and SAIT. We did a documentary on the stories of the neighbourhood. Because it was right on the cusp of the East Village changing. We wanted to sort of capture some of the stories of the residents who had been living here a long time. And so we met with those who were still living now, and then we also got to meet some who'd grown up in the East Village when they were children.

There are some extraordinarily active seniors who live in this neighbourhood. They are engaged, they are interested and they attend everything that is offered in this neighbourhood. It is astounding. And then there are others who aren't. They're quite isolated. And I think there are the problems that come with isolation. There are some mental health issues for sure in this neighbourhood.

There are some characters in this neighbourhood. But you get to know them and you miss them when you don't see them, and you worry about them when you don't see them.

I haven't quite been so engaged in any of the other neighbourhoods I’ve lived in. I really miss it, since during the pandemic I’ve been only coming here in the evenings. I really do miss the life and the personality of this neighbourhood.

One of the things that I find interesting about this place is just the network of people and relationships. Whether it's the seniors who live a block over, folks at the Drop-In Centre or other writers in town. Often when I tell people that The Sprawl is based out of here, their faces light up: "Oh, Loft 112, that's awesome!" And it seems like a lot of what happens here is it's a conversation here, and another there—and new connections are made.

I think that is what has made Loft 112 most successful. And I think that is because of two things. One is because of the size. You can't get lost at Loft 112. I've seen a few people wander in and then leave without really making a connection. That has happened, but not very often, because of the size of the space. It's like walking into a living room, or walking into a good party where you will connect with somebody quite quickly because you're coming there for a common reason. You're coming there to listen to poetry or to see art or to listen to music or to be part of a workshop.

Sometimes I go to a movie by myself—and I can sit in the back row, I can come and go without talking to anybody because it's a big space and it's dark and you can do that. But here at the Loft, you get cozy. And people are friendly and they talk.

The other part about it is I give credit to my mom. She was a really good host. I watched her be a really good host, growing up. And so it is something that I value. If somebody walks into Loft 112, it's important for me to say “hello” and to welcome them and to ask a few questions and introduce myself. Everyone is seen when they walk into the door. Like I said, sometimes I've watched somebody come and go and I haven't had a chance to connect with them—but it's built on relationships.

That's one of the biggest compliments that I get: people feel like it's such a warm space the minute they walk in. That’s how community is built. I’ve seen it happen over eight years. And oftentimes Loft 112 is a starting point for people. They meet, they connect, they start something new here, and then they move on to bigger and better things, and I think that's incredible.

When I think of some of the local folks who go by—it’s a real interesting mix of people. So many different kinds of people with different kinds of needs. Everybody who walks through that door has a different need of some sort.

I think the need most of us have is to feel welcome. And to feel safe and to feel heard and to feel that if we're going to walk into the space, we're not going to stand alone, and if we stand alone, it's not going to be for very long, you know? That we got dressed and got out for a reason.

I think that's what draws us together. It's not what we do, it's not what we put out into the world, it's our humanity that connects us.

So we can have a senior from the neighbourhood and we can have an 18-year old whose art is up on the wall for the very first time, and we can have our award-winning artists who come through here. And they can all be in the same room, and they're not like-minded in terms of pursuit, but they are all like-minded, I think, in terms of being appreciated and being seen.

I like to throw varied people into the mix because it inevitably works out and brings together a beautiful evening or an afternoon. Without a doubt, it does.

When you reflect on almost eight years of doing this, what lessons have you taken away in building community? We've touched on some of them. But I imagine you've gleaned wisdom that you didn't have when you first opened the door here.

The big one is that it's good to have a little bit of ego but not too much. When I first started, I didn't talk about how I owned the space. I thought, "I'll just be in the background, and I won't talk about myself as an artist. I'll just be the one sweeping the floors and scrubbing the toilets and making the space available." And so it was very easy for me to be the one cleaning the floors and scrubbing the toilets while everyone else got to be artists and writers. [laughs] And so that wasn't good because it's very easy to be angry when you're cleaning the toilets and scrubbing the floors.

So you have to have a little bit of ego so that people can see you as being a valuable member of the community. But not too big of an ego, because it's not my space, it belongs to the community. Finding the right balance of ego for being part of a community, I think, is key.

Also, making the place warm and welcoming. Having drink and food, when you can, so that people feel fed and happy at the end of the night is good for community. So is listening and being really interested in what people are doing, because there are some amazing stories and amazing work out there, and if you're willing to listen and to hear what other people are doing—new ideas come out of it, and richer community.

Just be open, listening and inviting and connecting. Have the door open and offer a cup of tea or a glass of wine. And sit back and let other people talk.

You mentioned opening the door. Every time that I pop open the door here and put the rock beside it and the door is open, it's always just a good feeling, you know?

Yeah, having the door open. Literally opening the door—and then also just opening the door in terms of opportunity and conversation.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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