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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