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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Spirit of Place

Saturday has a slightly different flavour. It seems as though people are taking a little more time to meander down the street. “It’s a nice street on a Saturday”, one man says, “if you saw me on a Monday or a Tuesday going to work, I wouldn’t be in such a friendly mood.”

I am glad to see several of my neighbours shopping local. I also meet the self-confessed, “Hackney’s answer to Mr Angry,” who finds, despite its architecture, the street “is tacky. I wish two thirds of the Pound Shops, pawn shops and nail bars would go.” He shared his opinions, but was friendly, and clearly cares about the neighbourhood. Several people have said to me, “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a café?”

Busyness as an impediment to friendliness came up. Someone said, “people get tangled up in work, have no social life, then they’re unhappy. They don’t communicate outside their family and friends. Instead of bars, there are casinos (betting shops), so there’s nowhere to meet people.” One person says of the Narrow Way, “it needs to change its psyche”.

Someone else dreams, “Imagine a roof over the street, a bar and some music…and old, young, fat, thin, beautiful, ugly, a real mixed bag of everybody.”

Someone reveals a rich seam of local history to me. Apparently “some of the oldest remains in the south of England have been found near here; evidence of an ancient settlement, adjacent to Hackney Brook”, which ran up past Hackney Downs. The buildings in the Narrow Way are a higgledy-piggledy “mix of different widths and heights” because of the medieval plots that the original buildings were built on.” Appropriately enough, “the graveyard is the dead centre of Hackney.” Look up next time you are passing to see the variety of the buildings.

The debate whether Hackney is or isn’t friendly, provoked mainly affirmative responses today, (perhaps there is a sunshine/weekend factor too). Variously people said, “that’s true”, “wonderful experiences of friendliness in my street”, “it’s a lovely message”, “wonderful smile and welcoming ‘hi’ – should have more people doing it”, and “there are some lovely people in Hackney. I think so”.

I wished someone who is 18 today a “Happy Birthday!” One very engaged parent sees “parents lapse”, and “kids grow up too fast, wanting boyfriends at 12”, their offspring meanwhile did a beautiful drawing with felt tips.

Someone talked about their own transformation. “The only way you can get out of poverty is to get a good education. Reading is the key. The key to knowledge.” Someone suggested, “rich people often barricade themselves in”, describing, “isolation as corroding for people”.

I was asked today about “the nature of friendliness”, and “what does it mean to be friendly?” One person answered this as “openness”, but closely linked to “kindness”, and also “community spirited.”

A few paces from the cart, a man tripped and fell. Someone passing asked him, “Are you alright?” Once back on his feet, he carried on his way. There was a lively exchange afterwards about the best question to ask someone in trouble, as “obviously, they’re not alright”. Someone explained that, “Can I help you?” would have been a more courteous and practical question to ask. This demonstrates how a well-phrased open question can allow a more appropriate response.

Someone asked me about my experiences and epiphanies of the project. I tried to describe something of the awe I feel at the journey so far. They then brilliantly described (using the felt-tips to draw a Venn diagram) the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project in terms of a Roman idea; where “Hackney (the place), is (the action of the project which celebrates the place), friendly (the people, who nurture and sustain the place). If any one of these three goes, the whole system falls apart. These three interdependent elements come together as “the spirit of place – the Genius Loci. You are accidentally representing the Genius Loci. This is one of the most powerful things you could do.” It is certainly a very powerful experience, and the people I meet reveal a spirit of place, which is enlightening.

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

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Organic Magic

The design of the barrow – two wheels and two handles to pull it – becomes a conversation about rickshaws, with someone from Sri Lanka, and we marvel at the twenty 45kg bags that might be carried on one.

The memories and histories that people bring to Hackney creates “the most incredible diversity ever” which people often tell me they love about the place. I feel privileged to hear snippets from some of these life stories.

Someone tells me about the importance that “gathering life histories” can have working with elders in dementia care. At the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project, these fragments of real lives become doorways into communication, finding subjects, that can allow two or more people to connect.

A visitor from Christchurch in New Zealand spoke about the aftermath of the earthquake there. While there is “a lot more resilience” in the community, she described the “impact of trauma” still unfolding now, two years on, and the ongoing stress caused by the damage, delays in insurance payouts and the fear of it happening again.

Whatever the background, culture or origin of someone, the aim of being friendly for me, is to find a shared humanity. This ethos is recognised by many who say “feel the love” or something encouraging.

Two young adults setting out into the world of work see the need for friendly skills in professional life. A series of conversations with parents and adults who have worked with children explored the difficulty of teaching the next generation to be friendly. I heard that “parents are afraid.” There is widespread “fear of paedophiles”, and “kids are taught not to take sweets from strangers.”

“Even kids age five have phones so their Mums can check up on them.” The retreat from the streets into the technological world of social media and games keeps coming up. Twinned with loss of the physical – no longer doing things like skipping and playing in the park.

One Mum likes the project because it shows how social interaction on the street should be, and contradicts the interior world that her kids think is normal. Someone suggested that we need to “empower people to feel safe”, by teaching them to say no and create boundaries.

Lots of positive feedback tells me that the project is understood and valued by many. “We need this everywhere”, someone says. Someone else finds that “it’s difficult to talk to people in the street, and you need a place where it is normal to speak, a meeting point.”

The boxes to sit on in the Narrow Way are allowing more conversations to happen naturally it seems, and at the barrow, people are not just talking to me, they are talking to each other. Someone shy finds it helpful to “take a role”. Someone else says, “people are curious”, but to encourage friendliness, “smile!”

One man sees some communities “separating themselves – their daughters can’t mix with our daughters.” Someone talks about a generation that is too insular, knowing only home and school near by. “It is important for people to have different experiences. People are the sum of their experiences.” We talk further and agree that “love is the foundation” of everything.

A chance conversation with a friendly regular last week uncovered someone who loves to skate but has no skates. This week we managed to unite him with an old pair of rollerblades. This was a small piece of organic magic which happened, and made us happy. He assured all present that the next time we saw him it would be “like a flash.”

“Hackney has always been friendly”, said one man, and another found it “neutral with a diversity of friendliness”, but celebrated the fact that things like this can happen here. “This is the coolest place in the world right now.”

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Social Consciousness

A young man points at the banner, which reads ‘Hackney is friendly?’ “That’s a lie. Take it down!” he says with force. For him, it did not provide an opening gambit to conversation.

Someone else, distracted by the barrow, chuckled, “it made me laugh, made me feel good, made me forget what I was doing.” For many people, the barrow does provide a starting point for communication. “That’s a good idea, because some people are lonely. I’m not lonely, I’m just nosey,” said one woman. Some of the people who chat to me may be lonely, but I have the sense that people talk to me or approach the cart for all sorts of different reasons.

The kind of interactions and the subjects that people raise vary hugely. I try to follow the flow, to pay attention, to meet each person. I am moved when someone said, “you are looking at me with love.” Multi-person conversations happen, which can create a more complex dynamic. After one of these, someone observed, “I wouldn’t have heard that woman’s opinion without this.”

Chance encounters with strangers can be wonderful and surprising. I am greeted with “Kupla” (Klingon for hello), by someone sporting a ‘Klingon disrupter’ and Starship Enterprise shirt. After speaking for some time, we part with the appropriate hand gesture and salutation, “Live long and prosper”.

Although I meet many who find Hackney friendly, there is a feeling, often voiced by very friendly people, that it isn’t easy to be friendly here. One theme that continues to be explored in different conversations is the tension that exists between different people. The financial pressures on those who were “born in Hackney, grew up in Hackney, but can’t afford to live here”, is a recurring lament. Those who own their house may be winning, but rising rents are forcing out their kids, and the people who are not in a position to buy.

Someone who has recently left cited, “too many children are going the wrong way – drugs and all that.” Crime is also a part of the picture. Someone looking at the banner says, “That’s ironic, I’ve just had my phone nicked.”

I meet parents, grandparents, and kids. Being a parent is not an easy job in our “i-culture”, where kids use technology, but may miss out on learning “social consciousness”. I meet a father in search of justice who wants to be more involved in his daughter’s life, and finds that the legal system seems to be stacked in favour of mothers.

For many who have lived in other parts of London or the South East, it does seem that Hackney’s rich diversity offers a friendly welcome, but for those from further afield I hear that it seems to be less so. A visitor from Canada admits that so far she finds “London is not friendly”, and we discussed why this might be. “British reserve” certainly plays its part. Perhaps those she chatted to gave her reason to change her mind.

“I’m from the Caribbean, and everyone there greets everyone on the bus or in a shop whether they know each other or not,” someone says. While big place/small place, and rural or city are factors, there are cities out there that I hear are more friendly than London.

I ask people about friendliness, and they ask me about my experiences too. I try to explain how hearing so many points of view has changed my own. “Were you a generaliser, or narrow-minded before?” someone asks me, “Didn’t you know everyone is different? That’s just common sense.” I thought I knew, but hearing personal experiences is very powerful, and I feel that I understand something of the differences I see in a more meaningful way than I did before.

Every day on the Narrow Way I meet people who are busy in small, often unseen ways, knitting our community together. I meet mentors and those actively doing things to bring positive engagement, communication and skills. I ask them how we can improve things. “It’s got to start with education, and it’s got to start young,” said one, who told me about the potential in and around schools where children and parents meet people from other cultures. Another talked of the many small projects all working independently in different ways, and the possibility of them gradually coming together.

One man tells me about his experience of falling victim to bad luck in New York, followed by finding extraordinary unexpected generosity. He shares stories and rhymes with me, and others at the cart. “How can we make our community better?” I ask, “More of this free stuff, do something for love”, he replies.

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Extraordinary People

As people walk down the street, I look for small signs of interest, a glance that might allow engagement. I cannot know what someone else is carrying with them – their history, and circumstances; but I notice body language – posture that is weighed down, or proud, gestures that are confident or shy, faces that are closed or open, pace and styles of walk that say, “I’m busy,’ or ‘I have time’.

Two of us today hold the space by the barrow and wait to see who enters into it. Some come to say, “I love this idea,” best of luck to you,” or wave in friendly solidarity. Others bring issues and opinions that they are grappling with.

Many return visitors invest something into a budding relationship with the project. This capital of friendly goodwill is growing. It feels as though something is sprouting, and at some unknowable time and place in the future, this will bear fruit.

I experience a series of wonderful meetings with extraordinary people, who each share something of them-selves and may have something to teach me.

Someone talks to me about the injustices and contradictions they see living in this borough with its “extremes.” They speak of a movement in America where citizens “take back the streets.”

One conversation about the nature of being human expands into a philosophy for life. “Use your super powers for the general good of the populace, or for your own selfish ends. Kindness starts with being kind to yourself”.

Another of these conversations was with a philosopher who probed into my thinking processes with provocative questions that explored the NHS, democracy, history, greed and hunger; each question opening up more and more uncertainty in me and expanding the conversation.

A mum whose friendliness is a way of life tells me, “I talk to everyone. It’s just in me. It’s not the way I was brought up. I was told, ‘you shouldn’t talk to strangers.’ I tell my son that, but it’s different for an adult.”

Last week, someone suggested bubbles. Today some kids helped us to make bubbles happen. They turned in circles and let the wind blow the bubbles. Then some adults experimented with bubbles, which felt like a brilliant leap, being playful together, changing the dynamic of the street.

Some take ‘Hackney is Friendly’ to mean happy. I am often smiling, the barrow is colourful, happiness is a good thing, but it is not the only way to be friendly, (although for some it can allow a way into connection). “I’m not happy,” someone said today. “Want to chat?” I ask, “No, I’m joking,” they reply, and we laugh.

One man remembers Hackney 53 years ago. “There was more freedom then – a game of dominoes, going to the pub. It was every man’s dream to have a car.” Now he has a car but regulations make it impossible to park.

Someone asks me for my opinion on difficult conundrums about politics and religion. I notice that through meeting and talking to people, my own views have become less certain. I say, “things mean different things to different people.” We speak of generational or cultural differences. Everything is relative.

In conversation with the philosopher, the responsibility for government is brought down to its smallest unit, the relationship between two people. “Government is people,” he says. “Communities happen one person at a time”, says someone else. Hackney may be a place, but more importantly, it is people.

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

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Why Am I Doing This?

Without the buses, there seem to be fewer people in this part of Mare St. A conversation with one trader echoed opinions I have heard from others whose livelihood relies on passing trade. His plea was for the council to “monitor what’s going on and bring back the buses. It’s killing trade.”

Since the school holidays started, there are more kids around. Children dare to stare at me. They turn their heads, dragging behind a parent or a pram to have a better look, and sometimes run back to ask something or pick up a card. They look at the barrow’s colour and have not yet learned the cynicism that the adult world requires. They say the words on the banner and ask direct questions.

“What are you doing?” one girl asks me. When I reply that, “I am here to have conversations,” we start again. Very formally she asks me, “How are you today?” and I reply, “I’m very well thank you.” An adult admits, “I’m suspicious of friendliness,” as I suspect many others have learned to become.

“Why are you doing this?” One man asks me. I can’t now recall how I replied, as it was part of a much longer conversation that meandered through a range of subjects. One answer is that I was inspired by my own experience of small friendly exchanges locally, particularly between the diverse range of dog owners, and the gradually increasing number of faces I have got to know and greet in the street.

One local smiling face has been a particular inspiration – Shiva, our local newsagent who supplies our family with Oyster top-ups. In the unleashing of mayhem and anger on the night of the riots in 2011, his shop was totally trashed. He was unaware of the effect his friendly presence had in the daily encounters of many people. Consequently, when a campaign took hold to raise money to put him back in business again, there was overwhelming support for him both locally and in a web campaign that moved people to contribute from further afield. He was amazed.

Myriad random moments and small exchanges took place on the street again today. I shared three words of Hindi with someone who was also not Indian, but is interested in the sound of words. Someone who described me as “being in the pink army” left me pondering on an African saying, “Beware when a naked man offers you a shirt.”

“Is this a collection?” someone asks, “No, but I can give you a postcard,” I reply. “What are you selling?” someone else asks, “Nothing, but would you like a postcard, or a chat?” I have had postcards printed, with small images of people who have taken part in the project that reads, “Greetings from Hackney.” I hope these cards will go out into the world to make more connections.

I met 8 of the people who are pictured on the card today, “That’s brilliant, cool!” was a typical response to being given one. Two kids used the felt-tips on the barrow to customize the cards. One changed it to read, “Greetings Earthlings.”

I met relative newcomers to the area and people who have been here for many years. I heard about a new live music venue that will be opening in Hackney Central. “Hackney has really changed in the two years I’ve been here, it’s not so scummy,” one person said. I heard from someone who’s been here for 35 years whose friend originally “thought they were mad coming to Hackney”.

One in depth conversation detailed a history of Hackney over the last 55 years from “village thoroughfare”, the Krays’ operations here, “white flight”, “the 70’s when all the squats were here,” “Centreprise coming from Harlem and becoming a hub,” to when “Hackney became known as the worst borough, which was propagated by the media.” The truth is that, “bad things happen here and elsewhere.” We talked about the differences between grassroots action and top down politics.

Over the years, someone has witnessed “waves of outsiders” coming to Hackney. Post riots I was left wondering how it might be possible to build bridges between people with different views or experiences, and people who may feel like ‘outsiders’ or be perceived as ‘outsiders’.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems of our society, I don’t have the power to make big changes, I don’t have instant solutions, but I do see that Shiva’s daily practice of being friendly had far greater consequences than he could have imagined. A friend recently quoted Margaret Mead, “Never doubt the capacity of an individual to change the world, for it’s all that ever has.” Can the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project spark small dialogues and actions between individuals that make a difference? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a try.

These are a few of the people I met today:

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