One week on and the only marks left on the street are some chalk drawings on the cement. Multicoloured Union Jacks and giant bubble writing that span the width of the road. Dashes of colour the rain hasn’t yet erased. Slower to fade will be the memories of the party these markings come from. On Friday 29th April residents of York Road in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, held what was probably the first street party in the history of their road.
In the build up to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, street parties gained much publicity in the British press. So it was I found myself walking down the Victorian terraced street I have lived on for twenty years, realising I had no idea who most of the people were behind its doors. I have always considered I held a belief in the importance of community, but hadn’t truly considered how this enigmatic word was applied in my own life. On deciding to organise a street party, it soon became apparent that many other residents felt our road needed such a communal event.
Many felt the party represented a more traditional way of interacting with neighbours. “It’s bringing back that community Britain used to have”, reflects Kate Cooper (22) who has lived on York Road for six years. “People used to make use of their streets to interact with other people daily. Now we get up; go out to work; lock our doors; come back home; go into our house; and lock our doors again. We don’t really use the links with our neighbours anymore.”
“You’re more likely to bump into people on the train than in the street”, says Eugene O’Gara (47) who moved to York Road from London two and a half years ago and now commutes back for work. “The party reminded me of Hornsey forty years ago, where my parents lived. They did things like this then. There was more of a community in those days. You may not have known your neighbours personally, but you knew what they did for a living, and you knew their name.”
Indeed the importance of name sharing became central to the day. One of the most successful and simple elements of the event was that everyone attending wore a name badge. ‘For me it was really special when someone could say, “Steve can you come and help with this?”. I’d never spoken to these people before, but now they knew my name. That’s something that feels really personal’. Steve Bianchi (45), originally grew up in Hitchin, but left when he was eleven. He decided to move back with his family six years ago, and for him the party revitalised his sense of belonging.
Whether the party will have a lasting effect for all residents, however, is still uncertain. “Essentially people on this street are city people,” says Richard Cooper (58). “We managed to create the effect of village life on that day, but in the week after the party you were aware that people still have their private lives. It is not always appropriate to go up to someone and start a conversation in the street. Putting up the bunting on that day, however, made the street a different kind of space. It allowed a hundred or so individuals to go out and interact in a new way.”
The longest living resident on the street, Edna Burr (84) moved to York Road in 1939. “During the war my mother sold National Savings stamps, so we would go into all the houses on the road. Now you just know your immediate neighbours.” Yet Edna also indicates that for newcomers in the past the street could be a difficult place to fit in. “My parents seemed to think that Hitchin people were quite cool and they didn’t want to mix. My mother came from Norfolk and my father from Northumberland. When they came to Hitchin, for years they were treated like strangers. Now it’s different. After all, how many people on the street today were actually born in Hitchin?”
The contemporary York Road, then, may be a more impersonal place, but is also a more inclusive one. Perhaps the needs of residents in a modern town are similarly different. Comments from residents all express the same desire to know they can trust their neighbours: to know their name. Yet privacy is also something valued on a street where hundreds live in such close proximity. The party was a day which reminded people of the need for a balance between autonomy and connection. For me it was also a golden day, of which I hope to share many more with my neighbours in the future.
(If you have a dialogue story to share, be it an event, an encounter or a traditional story emphasising the importance of dialogue, please send it.)
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society