Monthly Archives: September 2013

Nice Talking To You

Someone reminds me it is International World Peace Day. I celebrate by going out to find friendly interactions on the streets of Hackney. The street’s peace is broken by a group of evangelists, one of whom is preaching at stun level into a PA, that is so loud it distorts horribly. Someone says, “Jesus loves you sister,” as I pull the cart off to a quieter spot. Someone else comments on city life, everyone is “too busy and not enough sleep”, and nodding wryly in the direction of the cause of the disturbance, “too much noise”.

The Narrow Way itself continues to be a controversial subject, and again I met both those who are for and against the pedestrianisation. “If you’re in a private vehicle it takes ages now,” someone says. “The shop keepers don’t like it”, they continue. Someone else says, “it’s a good thing they don’t have the buses here, it was a nightmare before”. Another person says, “it’s starting to feel like a pedestrian area, not just a road without buses.” Someone else suggests, “We need places to sit and meet – open plan, but with shelter.”

An older person says, “It’s a long way to walk to the bus stop.” “It seems dead, but there’s all these places like Westfield now”, they say with regret in their voice, at what seems like the inevitable move away from the high street.

One person finds, “This part of Hackney is more down to earth, there are families. Some people have a bit of cash, some have nothing – they live from hour to hour. Broadway Market is more for singles, people who have more income”. Someone else bemoans the arrival of all the coffee shops that “local people can’t afford to go into”.

I stand on the street marking the pace of change in the area, and hear both the voices of those who feel frustrated and excluded by the changes that are happening, as well as those more recently arrived, attracted by the diversity and creativity that has flourished here for years. However, I wonder if the scarcity of affordable housing, lack of cheap business premises, and gaps in social and community provision is killing the very mix that has made the area thrive.

“Hackney is a place of extremes – extreme rich and extreme poor”, someone remarks. The exodus of those raised here continues, “My sister used to live here, she couldn’t wait to get out”, one long time local said today.

My own experience is that outfits or behaviour that might be considered odd elsewhere, are unremarkable here. One of the things I love most about Hackney is the widespread tolerance of people despite social and ethnic differences. “Some people have lots of money, but they’re not happy; it’s better to be rich in spirit. This ‘richness in spirit’ is something that I encounter every time I venture out with my cart.

I meet a typically eclectic mix of interesting people, and discover amongst other things that Marc Bolan used to live in the borough. I meet people who are doing their own creative projects, learn about another project that aims to bring strangers together called ‘Focal Local’, and talk to someone who is working step by step towards making their dream happen. Some regular visitors return, bubbles are blown, and someone comments that their daughter and I “both live in a pink world.”

Someone today said, “Many people are lost, they have given up, because of the obstacles in their way.” One conversation took place about the possibility of the lift as a neutral space to be friendly, in tower blocks. Also that when living in close proximity to others, there can be fear that if they are too friendly, vulnerable people will “latch onto you”. Someone else said, “I have been here for two months, and I’m finding it difficult to make friends, but you have created a meeting point.” As I offered them a cup of tea, they responded, “This is amazing!”

I do believe that small gestures of friendliness can make a difference. It doesn’t  take much to take a small friendly step. As someone said today, “Just put a smile on your face”. Someone else commented, “Let’s keep on being friendly in Hackney”.

Someone says, “The world needs more of this. I was attracted by the energy. Keep doing what you’re doing. Have a hug of love.” We hugged. It seemed like a fitting gesture to mark the end of the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project in the Narrow Way. Thank you to everyone who has waved encouragement, said ‘hello’, shouted at me, stopped to talk, blown bubbles or returned regularly to chat. As one visitor said today, “Nice talking to you!”

These are just a few of the people I met today:

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Dance in the Rain

Optimistically I decided to go with the forecast, which predicted a dry afternoon and took the barrow out. There was an occasional rain shower that wet me and the barrow with fine water droplets. There were a few quiet moments but the drizzle did little to quell friendliness. “How did it go today?” Asked someone who often sees me heading home. I said that I was surprised that it was so friendly in spite of the weather. “We’re learning to dance in the rain”, she reflected.

It seems that many of the people I meet are grappling with ways to overcome the challenges they face, to dance in the rain. Many see the changes locally and are also aware and concerned about other people, and are looking for ways to be compassionate. “When my parents came here in the 60’s, my Dad worked, my Mum looked after the kids, and they could pay a mortgage. Now you’d have trouble paying a mortgage on two incomes. This is causing division.”

Someone else points out, “Money goes to money; poverty goes to poverty.” I speak to someone working for a charity about chugging. “It’s a hard job”, they said, but as they moved on, encouraged me with “Carry on giving”.

“Life is a journey and we should travel it well. You are helping, whether you know it or not. These people who drink and take drugs are sick, not bad. They need places to talk”, someone thoughtfully commented.

As the project comes toward its end, I am asked about my “findings”. One interested observer tells me something I have witnessed myself. “The people on the street take care of each other. They are the ones who are out 24/7, although there are some who are predatory.” They tell me about an organisation called Poached Creative – a writing and design company who use unemployed people in their team to help them gain skills, experience and confidence, and the Localism Act.

I also hear about a scheme called ‘Suspended Coffee’ where you can “invest in a cup of tea or coffee in advance for a homeless person.” The café in the ‘Hackney Heart’ pop-up shop are hoping to join the scheme.

Visitors who want to buy stamps are directed to the post office, and I give them post-cards to send. Someone suggests I “make it (the barrow) a barbecue with kebab”.

I meet “a budding artist”, who is struggling with showing her work to others, “I don’t know if I can take criticism”, she wonders. I think this is something everyone creative faces. My critics seem less likely to engage in conversation, so I hear lots of positive feedback. However, I think this reflects the need that people have for meaningful contact. “I think you’re providing a valuable outlet for some people, particularly older people”, someone offered today.

“You’re such a happy person it’s unbelievable”, someone said. I’m not always happy, but I’m usually friendly. I recognise and speak to more people now locally. This morning I met a woman in the park, “You’re the friendly woman”, our conversation began.

The polarities of experience continue to be spoken. “Multi-culturalism here is more embracing”, appreciates someone in comparison with elsewhere. “I always knew Hackney was friendly – lived here long enough”, someone else said; and another, “No it’s not, it’s rubbish”.

“They (the government) have done nothing for East London since the Olympics. It’s deprived. They don’t care about the East End.” “It’s a ghetto”, says another of the young people I am talking to. “What could we do to make it better?” I ask. “Make streets with houses, not estates”, said one. “Re-open the police station”, says another.

Today I have a photograph with me of the beautiful ‘board’ house a friend of mine has built in the Caribbean. A frequent visitor to the project drops in, and I am able to show them. It is admired and offers “inspiration. I will be the eccentric from England. I am going to build a log cabin”.

“This is a good idea”, said someone of the project, “how did you come up with it? What drugs are you on? Whatever it is, it’s alright by me.”

A simple question to someone else, “What is important to you today?” produced the response, “health”. We discuss how “knowledge” is important,, enabling people to make informed choices about the drugs and treatments they consent to, the potentially harmful effects of some toxins, and the power of pharmaceutical companies to influence our care providers’ choices.

One sage, who is learning to look after their body well, tells me of the “muscle exercises for your eyes” which has improved their vision, describes the myth of Prometheus, (whose liver is eaten daily by an eagle); and warns me “Above all else, look after your liver, and never lose hope.”

These are just a few of the people I met today:

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Standing Together

Down the Narrow Way flows a river of humanity. I join it, aware of some of the currents that pull beneath the surface. Traders watch from the bank and fish for customers.

I am greeted by familiar faces, and we laugh together. Sometimes people are playful with me, others dive deeper into conversation. One interaction that started with a jocular question, “How friendly is too friendly?” was followed by a suggestion that rather than offering being friendly, “compassionate” would be a better word.

Although I meet lots of really actively friendly people, there are many who see the project “as an excuse” to be friendly in a society that doesn’t make connecting easy. “I agree with that”, one person says in answer to the sign on the barrow that reads, “Can small friendly connections make a difference?”

“We need more of that”, (friendliness) someone says, “too many people are miserable”. Someone points out that, “There’s an unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t talk to people on buses or in a public place. Everyone’s in their own bubble”. Someone else says, “If you talk to people at the bus stop, they think you’re mad”.

How can we reclaim public space for our community? Someone I met today said, “We need lots of organisations where women can go and talk to women, with kids, to socialise and do art activities, or a book club.”

Someone tells me, “I do feel like a dinosaur”. I hear in many people’s words a sense of lost opportunity, not just for times gone by, or poor planning decisions, but for the collective failure of our society and government to hear and act in the interest of the greater good.

Someone who sees the injustice of funding cuts in the NHS, the fire service, the police and the Bedroom Tax said, “They’re not listening. Although you don’t understand what it is like (to go through a particular difficulty) until you go through it, we need to come together and stand together!”

“Do you know that with your hand in your pocket, it says ‘hell’?” someone points out (when the ‘o’ is obscured on my apron). For some it may be, for others Hackney is heaven. “I’ve lived all over London, but this is the friendliest place to be. People are more down to earth, more real.”

People returning from other places discuss their relative merits. I agree with someone that Calcutta is very friendly. Long ago from elsewhere, someone says, “They tolerate me, but I don’t think I am really considered local by those born and bred here, although my children are.”

Although the map calls this street ‘Mare St’, it has long been known as the ‘Narrow Way’, and one conversation describes the appropriation of local places, such as ‘Hackney Baths’, and estate agents’ naming of ‘Clapton Village’.

One intention of the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project was that it would become somewhere to gather at the centre of Hackney, a village meeting point. I did not anticipate that the grapevine of gossip would affect me. Today, I was shocked to hear from different sources a rumour about the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project (that is not true).

In the majority of conversations I find people willing to look for our shared humanity, not the differences between us. “It’s the person, not the colour of their skin”, said someone today. “Have a couple of pints of beer there,” someone suggests, as a lubricant for friendly exchanges. I offer someone bubbles to blow, and they are glad to, “I usually take bubbles out with me”, they reply.

Someone suggests that you “get back what you put out. If you expect the street to be hostile, that is probably the experience you will have”. Someone else says, “if you carry on your life living in fear, it robs you of your life.”

“Is there a need?” someone asks, pointing at the barrow, “because it is friendly.” “It’s about having conversations with people,” I reply. “It works,” they say.

These are some of the people I met today:

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A Culture of Friendliness

Hackney is changing. For some, the past takes on a golden glow, for others, things are moving in a positive direction. I stand in the present listening to the voices that say, “Hackney used to be friendly,” and those who say, “I like all the new small shops and cafés, but I am worried that it excludes certain sections of the community.”

The direction that our cityscape is moving towards, is a concern for both local traders and members of the community. Change is happening whether we like it or not. “the future is not in retail”, someone says, and we shake our heads at the weight swung by chain stores and developers, in pursuit of money, often at the expense of green spaces, independent traders and community projects.

One man vents his spleen, “Hackney is not friendly, thanks to you lot.” I ask, “who are you lot?” “The arty-farty” colonisers, he replies. Someone else says, “I was born here and love it. Ain’t done me no harm”. In the comments book, someone writes, “Hackney is friendly. I’m pleased you have pointed it out as so many make it negative.” Some scoff and jeer as they pass by, “No way”, they say.

Someone says, “That’s wicked”, and takes a post card for a ‘Hackney box’ (a homework project). The last few days of summer holidays are grabbed for some, who blow bubbles or draw a picture. I talk to someone who is going to start school on Monday, and someone else who starts a new school then. I meet some who like me love to sew, and hear that someone is sitting in front of the town hall painting with watercolours. It’s the time of year to start learning. By the time I head back home, the first school uniforms appear, still crisp, fresh and roomy.

I watch the pace of the street, people moving slowly in the Indian summer heat and glad of a drink of water. I see familiar characters talk to each other, make small social transactions; a watchful network who know what’s really going on. “You got to keep your eyes open – there’s always something happening”, someone says.

Someone who thinks the project is “an admirable idea”, points out that, “we don’t have time any more. People are rushing and rushing and rushing. Some still have time to talk to me, and ask me what I’m doing. I explain that “I am here to be friendly, to chat, and get people talking”. Someone asks, “shouldn’t we be like that every day?” “Yes, but some people need an excuse”, I reply.

Some people allow me to peep through windows into their lives. I hear about a decision to move back from rural to urban, and the search to find connection in the city. I hear about things that  I didn’t know about, like the Hackney Film Festival and Hackney Tours.

I am offered hands to shake, a cheek to kiss, and try to respond appropriately. One conversation notes the fine boundary between friendliness and flirting. Someone suggests, that “over-friendly involves hands”. Someone else  points out that “laughing improves our well being”. Many decline (as usual) to have their picture taken. One man jokes, that “I’m too good looking for you to take my picture”.

I meet the beautiful crinkled face of a month old baby, and several elders. A conversation developed that dug back into an East End past, a time that supported a culture of friendliness. There was “less fear, so people were more friendly, and you were able to talk to anybody.

Someone else joined in “families were near by, and were your ‘therapy’, to support you in a natural way, not in a professional way.” As a child, it was not just families, there were others too that kept an eye on you, “that made me feel I was involved in the community. You learned a lot more than politeness, but a sense of responsibility, caring, morality”.

As is happening again in these times, one described, “families moving out. Why did they move? Because they couldn’t get accommodation.” For these residents, the history of Hackney continues to play out before their eyes. “There have got to be political decisions set in place for the next generation”, and we need to encourage the learning of “respect and responsibility”.

One grandmother today said, “if we take out greed, then life is sweet.” Another conversation that explored the relationship between the older generation and the young talk about what it was like growing up in the 1940’s. “I think we had a good childhood. Never had nothing. We shared skates and made our own go-karts. It encouraged kids to be inventive.” Someone else said, “Kids don’t have to wait any more. They get toys all year round.”

The elders remembered “clubs all over the place for boys and girls.” (Something a number of youth workers I have met would welcome seeing). They remark that these days, “kids are not frightened of authority”. “We can’t just blame the young, one says, we have to ask why”. These seniors are thoughtful and friendly, sharing the changes they have seen with me.

One recommends, “Just say, Good Morning, Good Evening, or Hello.” I am encouraged. “It’s a nice thing that you’re doing”, someone says, and someone else simply, “Stay friendly”.

These are just some of the people I met today:

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