One resident’s story of sparking off a street party – “Anything’s possible”
Here’s my account from 2008 when I set a street party rolling in my own street in East London.
Monday 7 July
The first meeting with neighbours. I spent an hour yesterday leafleting the 90 houses on my street. I wait outside my front door at 6:30pm as stated in the leaflet but no one’s about. It’s drizzling so I can’t pretend to read the handout of questions I’ve prepared. I just stand there in the wet. Then two neighbours appear under umbrellas. I’m elated. We introduce ourselves and begin to talk about our street and what our event may look like. A few more neighbours join us and soon there are eight of us. Eight people who all want a play party for kids. I volunteer to write to the council’s highways people to request a street closure permit. The drizzle stops. We agree a date. I write August 24 on my fridge door.
Tuesday 15 July
The second meeting. Again it’s drizzling and again just eight neighbours show up (only it’s not the same eight from the last meeting and one of them is asleep in a pushchair). Someone says we’ll need gazebos. Shirley, from No.12, thinks she heard ASBOs. People drift off when the drizzle is upgraded to a shower.
Wednesday 16 July
Yesterday’s poor turnout has left me anxious. I can’t help thinking I am closing my street off to traffic and hanging bunting for a party that no one wants. Chris Gittins from Streets Alive, a street party veteran, tells me this is normal at this point and not to worry. I came home to find a letter from an elderly neighbour. ‘I can’t see the sense of a party when no one here speaks English?’ she writes, demanding that I guarantee her window box won’t be stolen.
Saturday 2 August
No volunteers turn up to do the crucial door-to-door neighbour consultation so I take it on alone. Most neighbours I find home are very nice and apologise for not getting to the previous meetings. Most are looking forward to the event. A minority are indifferent and one is demonic, the woman at No. 37 who screams at me through drawn curtains: “Get away from my door”, a command she decorates with every expletive imaginable plus a few original ones of her own.
Monday 4 August
No one has responded to the ‘What I want to do on the day’ questionnaire I gave out during Saturday’s door-to-door chats. It’s disappointing but Chris from Streets Alive appears in my mind like a ghostly Yoda reminding me “not to worry”. Our street does not have a tradition for community activities so the Street Play event invites neighbours to break cover and meet each other, a big deal for some people that just want to shut the door on busy, noisy, knifey London.
Saturday 16 August
Final meeting. Again, we achieve the magic number of eight but this time, with a week to go there is lots of energy. Everyone’s got a gazebo. Prizes for the raffle are offered – a bottle of champagne, a voucher for a beauty salon, a professionally decorated cake in the shape of our road. Despite now having consulted and invited almost everyone on the street I am worried that next week’s party will have the same eight people turn up while everyone else leaves their cars in place in protest. There we’ll be hemmed in by parked cars tending a few sad sausages on a tiny barbecue as tumbleweeds roll by in a whistling wind.
Sunday 24 August
The day of the party. I meet up with a few neighbours hauling 200 metres of bunting in a black bag behind me. We divide up and start knocking on doors to ask if our neighbours are happy to hang bunting from their upstairs windows. Everyone is willing and a nice diagonal network of bunting begins to criss-cross the street. Then I realise a key house in the bunting scheme is No.37: home of the unseen swearing maniac. I approach her house bracing myself for rabid abuse. Her gate whines as I open it and immediately I can hear furniture tumbling and then, “Don’t even think about it”. I back out the gate and decide to use a nearby tree to anchor the bunting instead.
By midday the street looks great with almost all the cars having parked elsewhere. The only problem is no one’s out. I go back to my house to fetch my barbecue and return ten minutes later to see the street transformed. Neighbours are putting up trestle tables, wandering up with Tupperware goodies and stringing a badminton net across the street to play street volley ball. Similar to the scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when legions of children pour out of manholes and windows in the royal palace, the street’s children are bursting out of front doors and bringing the party to life. Beautiful chalk drawings appear, faces are painted, go-carts rattle down the road, music, cake, sausages, sunshine. It suddenly seemed so inevitable, it was magical. I stop worrying.
Monday 25 August
‘How about a German Christmas fair?’ emails one neighbour. Why not I think? I live on a street where anything’s possible.
Paul Hocker, London Play