I have lived in my street for nine years – a terraced Bristol street of 30 houses – and now know nearly everyone who lives there. There are some people I just say hello to but lots I stop and have a chat with, and I join a group of women of all ages who go for a drink or a meal together once in a while.
The old days … blank stares and broken glass
But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time not so long ago when the only conversation I had with other residents was over the sound of glass being swept as we wielded our brooms the morning after a night of car vandalism. People chatted and tut-tutted together. Men swapped tips on cheap wing mirrors. Neighbours of all ages gathered in the street and no one thought about risking punctures by driving with all that glass strewn around. I felt the warm glow of community flowing through us and was sure that adversity would bring us together. But it didn’t. No sooner had the glass been swept and the street made safe for cars then we all retreated behind our front doors and back to a brief nod or even blank looks as we passed each other.
I got involved in Playing Out in its early days – publicising the trial of the idea in six local streets in 2010 – but couldn’t see it working on my street. I thought that a sociable, friendly street where people organised street parties and ducked in and out of each others’ houses borrowing blenders, swapping children and loaning jump leads was the only ‘launch pad’ to regular street play.
But encouraged by two other mums in the street we decided to test the waters and find out what our neighbours would think about closing the road once a month to let children play and adults chat. We drafted a friendly letter and delivered it to all the houses in our street as well as the neighbouring streets. We set up a Gmail account for people to email their comments and ideas. In a mood of extreme and reckless enthusiasm we hired the local church hall for a residents’ meeting thinking that more people might come along than we could fit in one of our front rooms. It wasn’t quite the evening we had imagined.
A tricky start to building links
Two residents and the vicar attended. The vicar spent most of the time reminiscing about the war and worrying about the double yellow lines, which prevented his elderly parishioners parking right outside the church. One resident said having read our letter she thought a neighbour’s daughter who worked as a nanny would be upset if she couldn’t park outside her house after work when a playing out session was on. She didn’t see any irony in a nanny being cross because children were playing!
The next day we received the first email to our account – the wording of which will forever be etched in my memory.
“This has to be the most ill-thought-out idea I have ever come across in my life,” it began. “You women clearly have no jobs if you have time to stop the traffic and stand in the middle of the road gossiping while others of us earn a living.” The email was from a woman who lived in a neighbouring street just yards from my front door.
At that point I could have given up. I certainly felt like it and could think of nothing but the two negative views we’d heard. It all felt very personal and close to home.
Door-knocking and gathering views
But the two other organisers weren’t quitting! They got us out door-knocking to chat face to face with as many neighbours as possible. Some people didn’t want to talk and some didn’t really have views either way. But some of the conversations started on doorsteps showed that most of the people living in the street did want to be friendly and get to know each other. They did want to be on more than just nodding terms to the rest of the street.
“What a shame you’ve got to do all this form-filling and whatnot just to let the kids run around and play,” said one 90-year-old neighbour. “Our kids just went out and it was safe enough for them. But go ahead and good for you.”
Two years and 20 playing out sessions later, there are many more chats and fewer blank looks on my street. Of course some people’s views will never change and Gmail woman crosses the road to avoid me or any of the other playing out organisers! But plenty of other neighbours cross the street to talk and that feels like progress.