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: