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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Through the Portal

I took my barrow out alone, a trial run, just me and my smile, on the front line.

Although my experience of Hackney over the years has been mostly friendly, it felt like quite a challenge to put it to the test.

Thank you to the people who dared to follow their curiosity and talk to me! I was surprised and delighted by a myriad of small but vital conversations. I was encouraged by the man who on discussing my barrow or “hub of friendliness” said, “oh I see, it’s a portal”.

Some came to investigate, “attracted by the colour”, I felt moved by the person who said, “how charming, it’s made me feel better already.” On debating the question of Hackney’s friendliness to one man, I said, “I think you’ve got a big smile and you get a lot of friendliness out of people.” He said, “I do, as it ‘appens”.

The dark underbelly of the urban city was present too, in the man who muttered, “No it isn’t, I was stabbed last week.” All the more need to foster our threads of community spirit, in a fractured world.

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