Much has been written about the week of madness that swept through London a month ago. Many reports and editorials have since been devoted to the social and economic causes of the riots and how society should respond. The tone has varied but one word kept cropping up: community – from a breakdown in community ties resulting in youths destroying their own area to the pride that brought Londoners out on the street to clean-up their communities.
Since my return to London earlier this year I have been experiencing my own revelations about community. I realised that for the first time in over ten years of living in London I felt part of a community defined by an area. As a nomad of many years this feeling came as such a surprise that I had to examine what had triggered this development.
Time and energy
In a world of daily commutes we shuttle between home and work in a state of permanent semi-exhaustion without registering the quirks of our environment. It is not as if familiarity breeds contempt. As most of us are on autopilot during our commute we never really looked close enough at our surroundings to achieve familiarity.
Taking time out and stripping away the diversions (and excuses) that my job offered gave me the time, energy and opportunity – even incentive – to stop and absorb the quirkiness, history and modern vibrancy of my neighbourhood. Now I am back at work I am eager not to lose that art of looking so I make a point of observing at least one aspect of my environment every day. One day a chimney or set of cheerful flower pots will catch my eye and imagination, another day it may be the old beetle parked two streets away, and yet another its the sound of jamming coming from an open window.
Most of all, by soaking up the splashes of colour around me, I see glimmers of the personality of the unknown inhabitants in the houses on my route. My fellow unnamed commuters are no longer faceless ants scurrying to work. They could be the person who hung a bright ceramic sun and copper lamp outside their front door; the wife who works three impressive raised beds in a front garden on Royal Hill; or one of the chirpy men who pitches up in the local pub for the regular Blackheath Morris Men events.
Get an interest, any interest
An interest can provide a great introduction to a community in a city where many of us are “incomers”. And it really does not matter what the interest is!
In Greenwich, as in many other urban areas, yoga could be the ice-breaker. Whilst classes in corporate gyms draw busy City workers before they disperse to various corners of London, the pay-as-you-go classes in a church hall with peeling paint, old floorboards and utilitarian chairs attract locals. Similarly, the Saturday morning running sessions in the park are populated by people who have more connection with their area than the Lycra clad brigade on treadmills in a gym.
My door-opening interests has been gardening. Working in our “front garden” I invariably get talking to passers-by, like the warden of the neighbouring chapel or one of the owners of my local fish and chip shop who helped hold back pesky brambles so I could pick the juicy fruit. Reaching out to the nearest Transition Initiative and neighbourhood association has allowed me to meet fellow “Greenwich-ites” eager to bring a local orchard back to life and turn the scrappy planters neglected by the council into a butterfly garden. And since learning that our local association has acquired a hive, I have been invited by their guardians to visit our urban bees and am swapping notes on which companion plants will be attractive for my vegetables as well as our resident pollinators.
Notwithstanding the wisdom of many local planning authorities, small independent shops and amenities can make all the difference to a sense of community and in Greenwich it is no different. We are blessed with local shops run by owners who understand that knowing your customer is the key to building your business. Whereas the anonymous check-out staff at the local supermarkets have had corporate training on greeting each customer, the local shop owners recognise their regulars and remember their preferences.
The team at The Fishmonger knows that Mr M is partial to a kipper whilst at Drings they remember we prefer wild Essex rabbit to a French farmed one. Since asking Jason at The Creaky Shed about where he sources his stock, he keeps me updated on promising crops from his Kentish suppliers. And as an avid cook popping into Bert and Betty‘s, our local kitchen and hardware shop, is always a delight. Based on my ad hoc purchases the manageress knows I preserve, bake and make my own yoghurt – not every customer buys a milk thermometer! – so we always have something seasonal to talk about whilst she processes an order or payment.
A key ingredient
Greenwich is a reasonable place in which to look for community. It has its share of characters, independent establishments and activities in which to participate. I realise that in this respect it enjoys a better hand than some of the areas synonymous with the recent riots. However, another key ingredient in developing a sense of community has been a mutual desire to engage. I and many of the people I meet day-to-day switch off the diversions of “modern life” for long enough to engage face to face. Short exchanges with familiar faces build up over time. And before long I felt part of a community and with that sense came an even stronger desire to invest in my area.
* Photos taken with a Spectra camera using original Polaroid Softtone film.