Reflections on Storybombing

“I’m just going to call you Banksy,” the woman said smiling as she walked away as I snipped A2 map_adthe black cable ties from the iron fence on Rushmore Road. The woman had come out of her house near where a story shared by Sharlene had been displayed. She, like me, had no idea that the site of her home use to be an Adventure Playground in the 80s, teeming with young people doing things any insurance agent would get a fluttering heart over. She was like everyone else who had spoke to us about the project: delighted.

It was late Spring when the idea occurred to me: Storybombing. Turns out that’s a word that a) doesn’t exist, b) doesn’t sit particularly well with older people who were children during the war, c) people just don’t really ‘get’ due to not even knowing about ‘yarnbombing’ from which I adopted this new word. At any rate, people eventually came around to the notion and Co-conspirator Valerie and I ended up displaying over 40 stories across Lower Clapton for 10 days. We couldn’t have been more pleased- and surprised- with the results.

Stories were hung from shop windows (such as Elliot’s story about his favourite toy shop), community centres (June and Vera, originally from Jamaica, who have been active members for over 20 years), park benches (Sue who shared about a dark and difficult time), fence railings (a young Frances who remembers the old 38 bus being retired at its terminus), from bushes, in playgrounds, at a church, in front of homes and at a school. We couldn’t have done much more to hit different areas of our community more comprehensively. Even the majority of stories hung on public property remained for the duration of the street exhibition, though technically we were flyposting.

There were some interesting encounters with a couple local businesses which I will only disclose because I think they’re fairly representative of where our ‘regenerating’/’gentrifying’ community is at just now, and a big reason this project came about to begin with. Interestingly they both involved the same story, written by my own other half, regarding a social squat he was a part of several years ago. His story told of how these disused spaces had been reclaimed by a collective of people wanting to give an open space back to the community. There were classes offered for free, a free shop, a place to get a free hot drink. The space had two homes on Lower Clapton Road; one is now an upscale hair dresser, the other an estate agent.

I first went into the hair dresser and was greeted by people who represent the new face of Hackney. They would not, and could not as they maintained, entertain the idea of anything being hung in their windows as it was prohibited by ‘policy.’ I was welcomed to put the story down with their magazines, sure to get lost or to be taken away. I protested but they absolutely would not budge and, I felt, thought it was beneath their image to do so.

So off I trundled to the previous location, a newish independent estate agent, and was greeted by a nice enough guy. I explained the project to him, but he seemed to immediately recoil at the fact that the shop had not long ago been a squat. He wasn’t as into the irony of the situation as I was. He interjected to begin telling me about how community-minded they were as an agent: helping people find housing (affordability another topic!), offering advertisement for trades people and a community board. He welcomed me to display the story on the board, along with a litter of business cards and job adverts. I queried whether he would indeed be happy for people to come in off the streets solely to read the story, and he assured me it would be fine. It definitely wasn’t an exercise in openness on their part as far as I’m concerned, but it was better than nothing.

Both of these new businesses were so enamoured with their appearance they refused to compromise in order to do a good deed for the community and take part in something bigger than themselves. Ten days in the great scheme of things was too much for them to display a well-designed A4 in their window, though it would have brought them potential business and engaged residents who would never feel the welcome or ability to utilise their services due to financial constraints. It was so disappointing but sadly, a fair indicator of what our community is up against. Pair these encounters with the lack of response on the council’s part, though they are asking people to share stories of living in Hackney as part of their consultation, it doesn’t look great. On the flip side, there was also a lot of really good energy from other businesses, some long-time, some newer, so let’s not let a few rotten apples spoil things.

Removing the stories on the last day it really felt like we got away with something wonderful. I am already beginning to think about next year. If there were 42 stories in 2015, how many might we get for next year! My hope is that these stories will initiate conversations about Lower Clapton & Homerton’s past, current situation with mid-day shootings taking place as people dine on crepes, and where we go from here.

People who couldn’t visit the exhibition on foot have been able to view the entire tour online, and you can too. It’ll be left online to be viewed indefinitely. So check it out at http://arcg.is/1M68bCo

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Reflections on Storybombing

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