Monthly Archives: July 2013

Real Mix

As I take my barrow out into the street someone jokes with me, “Hackney is friendly, it’s just the people in it…” It’s that “real mix of people” that some visitors from Scotland comment on and I enjoy talking to.

Hackney is an area that holds extremes, “you walk along the road and in one direction there are expensive houses and the other way there’s an estate.” These economic polarities form the background for some of the personal situations that people who talk to me are dealing with. Someone struggling with the issue of the ‘bedroom’ tax said, “I thought about moving, but at least here people stop and talk.

I also met extremes of view, from the casual opinion thrown off-hand as someone passes, “Hackney’s crap,” a warning given to “Just be careful, Hackney’s not really that friendly, you might get stabbed,” to “It’s a lovely place,” said with conviction.

Someone who hasn’t been here for a while was surprised to discover that “Suddenly it’s humming. Hackney is the place to be.” Another recent convert said, “I do find it friendly. I used to live in West London, and it’s not better or worse, it’s just a very different experience.” Someone else told me, “Hackney is a very special place. Some talented people come from here.”

I am trying to offer a window onto that contradictory Hackney experience in this blog. Some teenagers enjoying the spectrum said, “There’s someone crazy down there, and then there’s this.” Another wry observer of the project said, “I walked up the street, and I thought, this is in the great English tradition of eccentrics.”

Underlying the conversations about Hackney is a more subtle enquiry into friendliness. I hear of a project carried out in a local school to learn about other countries, and to encourage everyone to mix together. We also discuss the permission that having a baby gives to talk to others.

I know from my own experience that walking with a dog also means you can speak to other ‘dog people’. My dog people form a wide network, and one comes today and tells me a tragic tale. It shocks me, and I recognise how deep these canine encounters connect me to the people and places where we walk our dogs.

As I talk to a woman well versed in friendliness, some Swedish visitors ask for directions to Chatham Place. She kindly offers to take them the scenic route through the church yard, and returned later to say, “they were really interesting people.”

Another champion of friendliness told me, “I shower people with happiness, even if they’re in a bad mood.”

Musing with someone else, they confirm the truth that I am discovering, “We really don’t know who the people around us are until we engage with them.” Someone whose history here spans over seven decades conjures up a “pet shop with horse, monkeys and a pot-bellied pig.” They recall, “Burtons in the Narrow Way, with dancing above. Hackney went down, but it’s come up again.”

I watch the skill of a lad weaving down the street on a double-ended twisting skateboard. His friend tells me “It’s a rip stick.” A friend of mine who has come to say hello sums it up, “As a community forms, friendliness oils the wheels.”

Just some of the people I met today:

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Why am I doing this? Like many people who look at me sideways, I wonder whether I am mad, stupid or both. Someone today told me about being inspired by Michael Eavis – who apparently wakes at 4am with moments of doubt and asks himself why he is putting on Glastonbury.

I hear words of inspiration from the people I meet and it inspires me. While my intention is to encourage and champion friendliness, it is the people I meet who teach me about how to be friendly. The guardians of the street, who spend their day hanging out, have a code of etiquette and often a way of seeing things that goes beyond the surface. I still have much to learn.

“We live in a society of fear, perpetuated by the leaders because it’s hard to control someone who is free, free in mind, heart and soul,” said one free spirit today, welcoming me with my barrow. I am just a part-time visitor on the pavement, but they will be keeping an eye on things after I have returned home.

Another free thinker navigates the street on roller blades, stops for a conversation, sharing information and ideas, then rolls on his way again.

For some, fear keeps them “indoors after 8pm. Gun crime makes people scared to go out. I wish all that was gone,” said one person. Someone else I met today looks and listens for the signals of friendliness, like “the tone of voice”.

Another person today said, “People like to stereotype things. You see what you want to see.” I notice this in people’s perceptions of Hackney (good or bad), and in passers-by’s perceptions of me. I enjoy the tentative sidle that brings the curious person in to look a little more closely at what I am doing. Others reflect what they see, “It makes me happy to see you happy,” said one familiar friendly face this afternoon.

I met someone today who was just visiting the neighbourhood. After being born here, circumstances took them elsewhere. Someone else was proud to say, “born and bred here and it’s home.”

A couple of friendly ambassadors arrived. “She is the Queen of Talking to Strangers,” said one. The Queen herself tells me with relish, “I like being friendly, you hear people’s stories.” Just at that moment someone walks past waving and says hello to her. They seem to be doing a great job of spreading friendliness, and show me that I am just one of many working to be friendly in this community.

A man with his own queens, ‘the Honey Man’ tells me, “Not being selfish, not being an individual, working as one towards a goal. That’s what the bees do.”

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Hackney is Friendly?

The pedestrianisation of the Narrow Way divides opinion. A couple of shopkeepers say hello, at a loss at falling trade, they shake their heads forlorn. “I really like it, it’s nice without the buses”, said one woman. “It’s good to see this road open for what people want to do”, said someone else. Then there are mutterings, “our tax pays for this rubbish,” said one woman to no one in particular.

My own dilemma is that I am now concerned that the statement “Hackney is Friendly” may be perceived by those who see the banner without investigating further as a categorical statement, a dividing line, rather than a starting point for exploration and a celebration of our community spirit (often found in the face of adversity). I thought that it would be a win/win campaign. If you think Hackney is friendly, great, if you don’t, perhaps you can have a conversation about it and experience friendliness here. “Your problem is you’re an optimist”, said someone today.

I have made a new addition to the banner. My hope is that it will allow a broader sense of inclusion, and allow the subtleties of more ambiguous experiences to be expressed; but perhaps I am arranging deckchairs on the Titanic?

“Why is there a question mark?” a young woman asked. “So that people can share their experience whatever it is”, I replied. I have no wish to inflame discontent, but to foster communication.

My assumptions were challenged about the people I met this afternoon. Incredible stories unravelled before me, the ups and downs of long journeys from rich to poor, east to west, and then to now.

One man remembers, “Before the war then after, this area was completely different. There used to be a market down here. There used to be shops all the way up Clarence Road.” I’ve lived around here for 25 years, but for the 10 years before that I came to visit regularly. I remember the shops on Clarence Rd, especially all the yarns and ribbons tied to the outside of “Ries Wools”. Many of the shops have now been turned into residential properties and the traders hope for more customers.

I fell in love with Hackney then, had a lot of my “first” times here. My first samosa, first bagel, first goat curry, first meeting with a rasta, first hearing of ‘Kind of Blue’, amongst other things.

One person talked to me today about the harsh consequences of loss of livelihood. “The world’s your oyster, and then it’s not.” Someone else spoke passionately about being here. “People here don’t know what it is like behind the steel curtain. I love hackney, in London I feel free!”

I am getting to know the characters who drift around the area and often hear real street wisdom. “Are you a Hackney person?” I asked in one conversation, “No, I’m a Hackney personality.” Another apologised, “Sorry, I don’t have words. Language doesn’t matter, you just need heart.”

Parked near St Augustine’s Tower, there is a band playing. People are taking turns throwing toy ducks into a toilet. A curious collection of people are dancing together – many of whom I have chatted to. I direct some Burberry shoppers to Morning Lane. A rapper jams with the band, giving us some positive flows, and he nails it, “I love this random Hackney stuff!”

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Hackney is Not Friendly For All

Today I feel like throwing in the towel. My idea to provide our community with a space to connect and chat, amplifying the friendliness that is here in an inclusive way is not working for everyone.

Although I am talking to a diverse range of people, for those who are already feeling marginalised and angry, the statement ‘Hackney is Friendly’ provokes the opposite reaction.

“Hackney is not friendly to the black community, which is over 50% of the people,” heckled someone today. Again citing the cuts to youth projects. “It’s the summer holidays and the youth have nothing to do.”

What I am doing on the street is perceived by some as “pretentious” and promoting “gentrification”. I am also seen as a representative of the council and the decisions it makes.

In the aftermath of the heckler’s protest someone came to talk to me. “What you’re doing is working, because you’re getting a reaction. Everyone has been friendly to me today. Don’t get disheartened.”

I had no idea that being friendly would be so controversial.

Later, the sound of ‘Hackney birdsong’ announced the arrival of the police in several cars, and some young black men were stopped and searched…demonstrating another flash point for local young black people.

Others talked to me today who felt more positive about Hackney’s “melting pot”, and the challenges of rising prices and people moving into the borough, “we all just have to make the most of what we have.”

Someone else said, “I moved here because it’s creative and it’s friendly.” Another person frustrated asked, “Why is it so slow to change, still one of the most run-down boroughs?”

Discussing the influx of newcomers “selling up in Islington and moving here”, I asked one man, “What does it take to become a Hackney person?” He replied, “To be a Hackney person you have to involve yourself in the activities of Hackney. You don’t have to change your accent, but be engrossed in Hackney not just sleep here.”

Familiar faces came to say hello. “I just know you as the pink happy lady”, said one. I’m not feeling so happy now, but I am definitely a Hackney person.

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Social Exchange

Moving more slowly than usual, people ambled up and down the Narrow Way.  Even the traffic near by very thin, the streets becalmed by heat. Especially in this weather, my strategy of waiting to see who comes to me seems more successful than pestering those who are unwilling to engage.

Most people ignore the barrow, others pass comment or say “hello” and continue on their way, and then there are those who come over and talk to me. For those that do, the conversations that open up offer windows into other realities, lives that are usually very different from my own.

My presence on the street does not represent an organisation or a company. I try to provide a positive yet neutral space for whatever arises. I cannot provide solutions to the problems that people sometimes bring. All I have to offer is a social exchange, a meeting where two people see and hear each other.

The conversations that emerged today revealed feelings and needs as well as achievements and things to celebrate. Deep into those conversations photographs not always appropriate.

“How do people afford to live round here?” one person asked, frustrated by a system that fails to value their input into society. “We want money, not talk,” said one woman. Someone else came to talk because, “I am not experiencing friendliness” at home. They shared their story, and then asked, “what are you going to do with this information?”

In the hearing of stories, personal details remain private, but in writing this blog I may quote from actual conversations and reveal how I feel. In sharing, giving and receiving there is a delicate balance – how to receive without taking liberties, how to give without tapping into dependency issues. How do we take care of ourselves, yet still be available to relate to others?

Another person, annoyed by people who “suck the nutrients from you” with insincere chatter said, “I like to be real.” It was a good reminder to step gently and with truthfulness in this exposed social economy.

I shall stick to the advice given by the parent whose daughter has  “changed their life”. The dynamism and optimism that they have to share brings hope to the world. “Keep experiencing Hackney!” they said. It is a very rich experience.

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Proper Hackney

Today I felt some trepidation about what I would encounter. My journey down the Narrow Way began with the support of a good friend. She explained the ‘80/20 Rule’ to me. “80% of people are going to be nice, but 20% give you flak. The problem is that the 20% take up 80% of your head space.” What I actually encountered was more like 98/2.

Hackney opened its heart and gave so generously that I feel greatly enriched. Any preconceptions or assumptions about what people might be like fall away, and I am honoured with wise words, insights, compassion and above all friendliness. “You have to open a book to see what’s inside,” one visitor reminded me, returning to continue last week’s conversation.

The project reflects back the incredible openness and tolerance of so many people here. Although someone said, “It certainly brings a smile to Hackney,” the project just mirrors back the broad smile that is already here.

Someone who began the weekend on Thursday night tried to persuade someone chatting at the cart to pierce his nipple with an ‘I Love Hackney’ badge. Thankfully he resisted.

I met a happily retired woman who shared her joy at being in a relationship for 50 years, a great grandmother, and enjoying simple pleasures like reading or sitting in the garden. I shared many conversations and found enthusiasm and recognition from an amazing mix of people. “We need things that bring people together”, said one.

My respect goes to one urban shaman, (in communion with the animal kingdom), who welcomed me. “Love conquers all”, said he, and reminded me that “You got to learn to love”. I am learning from the people on the street the friendliness of “Proper Hackney”.

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Feeling the Heat

Many conversations today started with the weather. It was hot! Too hot for some. I stood on the sunny side of the street to make the most of it. I chatted again with several people who passed by last week, and was encouraged by others who said “Good outfit!” or “This is really fun”.

Although I do not seek to push a particular agenda, I am discovering what a political act it is to stand in the street open for communication. Today alongside the positivity, I felt the heat of anger, dissatisfaction and fear.  On public display my white skin and “middle class vibe” make me a target for some who are disgruntled.

Our city is divided. Divided by opportunity or lack of it. The same geographic location can have very different meanings and perceived levels of friendliness according to colour, class, age and culture, amongst other things.

I have lived on the Pembury Estate, albeit a long time ago, and for me it was a good and friendly place to live. A teenage girl shouted at me today,  “Hackney is dangerous, very dangerous. If you go to that estate, you will die.” One woman who lives there said today, “The riots were bad, but they woke Hackney up. I talk to people now that I never knew before.”

A conversation with one chatty woman revealed her unwillingness to be limited, as she described a conversation where she was ridiculed for using a “big word”, that was “very Broadway Market”. She values learning.

A very angry and articulate community worker incensed by the cuts and the failure of much needed youth projects to be adequately funded was outraged by the  ‘Hackney is Friendly” project, as an attempt “to put a smile and flowers on the face of Hackney.”

I am not a politician, I am just an artist; but I am here to listen, to witness and to be a conduit between the street and the page. I see the need even more strongly for bridges in communication between the different groups of our community to make connections with each other. Many voices in the neighbourhood go unheard.  I am lucky to have the opportunity to have a voice, and I happen to say it with a smile and flowers.

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Down to Earth

The sun is shining and positivity spreads like a virus. Today three other willing volunteers joined me and we talked to each other and whoever chanced by.

Apart from someone who works here but lives across the water, (and enjoys being here), we met several long term dwellers who make my 25 years in the area seem short term, and a recent arrival who has “gone up in the world moving to Hackney”; all who call it home.

Today the spirit of being rooted in Hackney was strong. “Nobody can move me out of Hackney, Hackney is home,” said one man heading to the park with his daughter and her new bike. Another long term resident loves the “down to earth people here.”

Some of the guardians of the street who run their own unofficial ‘friendly’ project see us as we trundle the cart to and fro and say “hello”. They witness and tolerate us, a temporary diversion in the life of the street.

I often pass this way several times a day, rushing to the station or nipping out to buy a metre of fun fur, printer inks or a pot of tiger balm, but now I am beginning to know the street from a different perspective. There are currents and tides that ebb and flow bringing people north to south and back again.

My fanciful notions of social media and networking are put in their place, when I offer a shiny new business card (with the web address proudly marked) to a man with his feet on the ground.

“Do you use a computer?” I stupidly ask, “No, I just use my heart,” he replied

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Reflecting Friendliness

Standing in the street broadcasting colour is something that attracts some people, and is ‘a red rag to a bull’ for others.

“There is good and bad everywhere”, and, “Some people in some parts of Hackney are friendly”, were two views expressed today.

Hackney is a diverse inner city area that is under pressure from change, recession, human density, poverty and its recent neighbour, wealth. Into this potentially explosive mix step I, the naïve white middle class hippy who believes that friendliness can make a difference.

People react to me with a range of responses that include ignore, avoid, vent at in frustration, wave and smile encouragingly, approach with caution, and beam in with understanding. Sometimes a conversation will start with one response and shift into another.

Some people read ‘Hackney is Friendly’ as a provocative statement and disagree. “Hackney IS friendly” one woman stated with gusto. “That’s why I moved here,” said another and she talked about finding neighbours here you can count on.

I met many amazing people today, and in micro conversations have heard about life journeys that elicited brave, valiant and extraordinary responses. Thank you to all who spoke to me (some of whom are pictured here). “When people ask me how I am, I say I am happy!” said a musician who exuded a love of life.

A man with impaired vision but good insight pointed out that if you are friendly, you will see more friendliness in return. I noticed myself reflected in his dark glasses as we spoke.

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