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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