Hi pals! Mia and I just finished up a wonderful week at the Battersea Arts Centre in South West London. What an amazing place. Formerly Battersea’s town hall, the building has a long history of social activity (suffragettes, trade unions, radical politics etc.) and is a wonderful piece of architecture. Today, it is a home to multiple performance spaces, a cafe that acts as a social hub for the community, a daycare, non-arts related programming, and a residence for visiting artists (this is no creative cities incubator space!). Two of my favourite things about BAC included the resident cat Pluto who wandered throughout the maze of wide hallways, large rooms, and winding staircases willy nilly and a Tea Dance for local seniors that we came across in the Grand Hall—dreamy! Anyhow, last weekend was one of my favourite experiences of Council of Community Conveyors thus far. For those who don’t know, Council of Community Conveyors was formed in 2012 with our good pal Sharon Stevens and provides the service of collecting and delivering messages from one neighbour to another within a community. The Council is invited by organizations to canvas different neighbourhoods in their city; and local residents are invited to join the Council for the weekend by participating in a 2 to 3 hour session of the project. On Saturday and Sunday afternoon this past week, Mia and I welcomed a couple dozen folks to the Council. New members are given bright yellow, handmade Council sashes, “census” type forms with 40 residences to visit, and are broken into groups of three. Before hitting the streets, new members undergo a short, twenty minute training session wherein they are shown how to collect and document messages from neighbours, provided maps of their routes, and are trained in official Council-speak. No previous experience necessary here! Once in the field it is impossible to predict what experiences Council members might have as they move through the community. We tell people to be prepared for anything! Some groups on the weekend reported meeting people excited about the project and people angry they had been disturbed. One group spent thirty minutes talking to a resident who knew a lot about the local history of the community. The resident even gave Council members a map of a Worker’s House for the BAC’s archive that she originally found in the BAC garbage over a decade ago! On Saturday the group that I was with knocked on the door of Rupert and Walter who were very obviously not expecting us: one of them only wearing pyjama bottoms and the other, a towel. What bods! They had only recently moved into their place. They wanted us to tell the person from the previous residence we visited, that she had trespassed during their party the week before. They said that she was lucky they hadn’t called the police. The Council only moves in one direction down a street, so we had to tell Rupert and Walter that was something they’d have to do themselves. And while they were frustrated with one neighbour, they were very keen to meet the other. They asked us to them that they would “like to share one piece of food with them every Sunday evening”. Their invitation seemed like a contemporary version of borrowing eggs or milk from a neighbour. I imagined them carrying over a chicken leg every Sunday at 6 pm. Unfortunately, their neighbours were not home, so we could only deliver the message by a written note, but I’m sure two days ago they began what would become a long tradition!
On Sunday, I conveyed messages with our pal Andrea Williamson who recently moved to London to do her MFA at Goldsmiths. We met so many nice people and learned so much about the community. It was truly a wonderful experience. The last person we met spoke to us passionately about the way in which Battersea had been gentrified over the past 15 years. She mention that she lived in one of a thousand houses originally purchased by a workers’ union (which later became a council estate). Many of the homes were sold into private ownership. She grew up in Battersea and was frustrated by the expansion of “Westminster” and "Chelsea" life-styles across the river. She also felt that as a long-time renter she had been, and continued to be, treated poorly by landlords who wanted her out of the neighbourhood so they could sell her flat. It really helped create a broader perspective of the community.
Talking to strangers can be disorienting for both the person who answers the door and for members of the Council themselves. But there is something amazing that happens after a resident understands why we are in their neighbourhood. They often and instantly breakthrough into a mode of story telling about the community, their experience of the neighbourhood, and anecdotes about their neighbours that is wonderful and playful. It is almost as if Council of Community Conveyors creates the conditions for intimate theatrical performances by neighbours and council members alike, one house after another, all while providing a genuine service for the community.
Off to Birmingham and the Fierce Festival!