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: