I work downtown Peterborough; and I am blessed to do so. George Street is bustling with the traffic of people walking at almost any time of the day with window shoppers, regular coffee drinkers, and the busy bustle of students and professionals wandering to and fro. I can’t picture our lovely downtown strip without the sun shining, and a healthy amount of Peterborough locals and visitors alike walking either aimlessly or with purpose.

 The more time I spend downtown, the more faces I begin to recognize. I’ve been a frequent hooligan of downtown since before I even had a choice in the matter. My dad used to take me downtown all the time. We would either go see a movie, the library, Moondance, or even Home Hardware.

 My favourite part of these visits was parking the car atop the heights of the Simcoe Street parking garage; I remember spending hours wandering with my dad, soaking in the culture of the city he had chosen to raise a family in. I was also lucky enough to attend Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS) for my first few years of high-school, so downtown became my stomping grounds; my “turf”, so to say.

 I had taken up smoking cigarettes like most young creative types do, but wanting to keep it a secret, I spent hours wandering the side streets to find “secret” places to fix my addiction. Downtown Peterborough is a culture and counter-culture in its self. I cannot count how many local shows I’ve either played or seen downtown, how many gatherings of like minded people I’ve been so lucky to be a part of. I remember not having a house to hang out in with my friends.

Where were we supposed to go to hang out free from the grasp of our parents? Downtown, of course.

 Many summers, I have spent doing nothing but moving from one sitting spot in the Cenotaph, to Hassletons, in order to get an iced coffee, then down to Millennium Park to enjoy the water, and then finish the day atop the courthouse hill in Victoria Park. I have learned to forget the awful rumours I’ve heard, and grown to feel at home whenever I’m in the heart of the city. But there is an air of tension. There is a fog of uneasiness and unknown fear when you go downtown. This is where the terrible rumours of terrible people who inhabit downtown Peterborough come from. You will be told that you will be assaulted by the homeless, want-to-be gangsters or Schizophrenics. I won’t lie, these things do happen from time to time. But the more we ignore these things, the more this fear will grow.

 The more fabricated and exaggerated stories we hear and re-tell without considering the solution will only continue to produce a negative image of our wonderful downtown. Yes, there is violence, and drugs, but find me a place anywhere that there isn’t that risk. I think we are capable of erasing this stigma from our Downtown.

 My job has taught me to do this. When the shop is slow, I get to sit outside and people watch. I see hundreds of faces every day, some I recognize, some I talk to, and some I choose to ignore.

That’s where I believe I have found the problem and the solution. I was raised to not talk to strangers, for good reason. Yes, there are creeps and sadists out there, but what happens when you do talk to strangers, once you’re old enough?

 What is the hesitation in saying hello to the people passing by on the street? Instead of ignoring the homeless person asking you for change, a simple “sorry” completely erases the fear and mystification between the two of you. Communicate people! I’ve learned so much about the world and myself from taking the time to stop and talk to someone who has a new perspective. I am sick of the older generations claiming that social media isn’t real communication and assuming that our generation has no idea how to communicate with each other. I’d like to claim the exact opposite.

 Due to these new technologies, we have never been more connected. I always know what people close to me are going through, and most importantly, what they’re feeling. The difference between humans and animals is that we have the ability to communicate and connect emotionally with each other. However, we were raised to not communicate with people face to face, cue the typical, “don’t talk to strangers!” advice.

 So, what I am asking of you, dear readers, is that you start saying hello to the strangers you meet. Start conversations and find connections. We don’t need to be scared of each other; we should be scared of not having each other. Let’s talk to each other! Dialogue, arguments, and opinions are important. We will continue to butt heads on issues if we can’t communicate amicably with each other.

That may not seem important if you’re fighting over a chocolate bar, but it’s absolutely important when you’re fighting over human lives. Let’s not forget that it starts with hello, and that’s a weapon we all know how to use.