On Sunday, we finally saw the fruition of eighteen months of door-knocking, emailing, meetings on the street, meetings at the council, a public shouting match at the local theatre and finally a street ballot: we closed the road to traffic and let the children play out! Woo hoo!!
It was a marvellous afternoon. I can’t possibly tell you everything about it in this blog post. In fact I think, including some back story, I could fill a medium-sized novel with Sunday’s events. It started very quietly with our volunteer stewards putting barriers across both ends of a completely deserted street, and for me at least, it ended with an African grey parrot named Archie…but I might not get that far in the story.
Highlights for me were:
– Seeing the children, who arrived slowly and stood around awkwardly at first – where were the bouncy castles and face painters? What were they going to do? – gradually getting down to the serious business of play.
– Seeing 50-60 people amassed in the sunshine, chatting or playing on the tarmac and the pavement. Lots of kids and parents, but also a good amount of adults without children who wanted to help or just fancied a chat.
– Meeting some neighbours for the first time. Previous street events meant that quite a few of us knew each other already – our team of four dedicated organisers were able to muster 20 stewards for the afternoon, for instance – but there were also families who had just moved onto the street. We have a rich array of nationalities. I met residents from Argentina, Poland, India, Brazil and Ghana. My favourite neighbour moments were meeting a man who has lived on our street since 1967, and introducing a Polish lab technician who is interested in microbiology to her neighbour – an Argentinian microbiologist.
– A water fight (note the boy’s wet hair in the picture above), which the Redster claims to have ‘won’. One three-year-old boy was determined to get his hands on a water pistol, and when a five-year-old girl kindly handed hers over, he instantly turned it on her and squirted her in the face. There were also spud guns. I know because I found a potato pellet in my bra.
– Being a steward. There were two stewards at each end of the street, manning the barricades, and a floating steward in the middle of the road. I got to be a a middle-of-the-road steward for an hour, in a fetching hi-vis jacket, whistle and, most importantly, my scooter. Whenever a resident’s car was allowed in to park, a steward from the end of the road would blow their whistle to clear the road, and then walk in front of the car – I would zoom up in my scooter and take over, guiding the car to the steward at the other end if necessary. There is nothing like striding in front of a car driven meekly at walking pace to give you a sense of power :-). It symbolised that, for one afternoon at least, children’s play was more important than cars.
– My church family. I asked for help with the play street and at least a dozen of them came to either help or join in. When things kicked off in a nasty way – see below – I was extremely grateful for their calming presence.
I’ve seen pictures of other play streets, and visited one in Hackney, and their stewards generally seem to be seated on garden chairs having a nice cuppa while they keep an eye on the barriers. On our street that was just not possible. Our stewards were constantly re-directing through traffic – our road usually obliges as a rat run – and allowing residents’ cars in roughly every ten to fifteen minutes. At half past two I was walking up the road with a cup of tea in each hand for the stewards when I saw a car dodge past the steward it was supposed to be following, then accelerate up the street, horn sounding the whole time. Two of us had to step out in front of the car to stop the driver, who turned out to be a resident who has vehemently opposed the whole play street idea. She was effing and blinding like you wouldn’t believe, swerving around to try to get past (clobbering one resident with her wing mirror) and by the time we’d got her to her parking spot, she’d broken the law on three counts and united the whole street against her in complete indignation. She had two children in the back who got out looking mortified, their vocabulary enriched by some of the most offensive words in the English language.
She will be hearing from the police, and it looks like we’ll get a police presence at the next event – this is something we will be doing one Sunday a month. She didn’t spoil anyone’s fun on this occasion though – kids and adults soon got over their alarm, and it gave everyone something to talk about. A woman from church, someone who works with alcoholics, approached me and said the most compassionate thing I’ve heard anyone say about this particular neighbour – that someone who behaves like that must be in a lot of pain. She had just sat down on the pavement with another church member and the two of them had prayed their hearts out for her. Meanwhile a father from church had taken a different approach – he’d filmed the whole thing.
So in a way it was an afternoon where my two worlds – church and street, faith and environment – collided in a happy and creative way. I have such an unshakeable feeling that God is behind the whole play street idea, and loves it. It makes sense when you grasp Jesus’ teaching on loving your neighbour – taken literally – and valuing children. In fact I would go so far as to say that God also loves play. (I wonder if someone has written on the ‘theology of play’ – if not, that book is waiting to be written.) Apparently it was the Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston, who suggested in an interview published in The Times in 1976 that Britain preferred cars to children.* He was commenting on streets designated as ‘play streets’ becoming overcrowded with cars. Please God – let us be witnessing the start of a reversal – even if, for now, it still feels slightly subversive.
(See, I ran out of time to tell you about the parrot.)
*Thanks Paul Hocker of London Play who dug up that interview.