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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