six billboards on clapton common, hackney

Village Hall and Community Kitchen for Clapton Common

A mayor, a bishop and a rabbi walk onto the site of the abandoned toilet block on Clapton Common . . . and the puns come tumbling out.

We’re at your convenience!

Let’s try and flush out support for this regeneration project!

Spend a penny or two!

We all laugh politely because we’re thrilled they have come to help us launch our SpaceHive fundraiser for Liberty Hall – and somehow even bad puns show willing, like an dotty relative trying to remember your name.

This launch is the culmination of an extended community conversation. We’ve circulated questionnaires, hosted neighbourhood meetings, door-knocked our way around the estates: what should we do with this derelict but very public council-owned building?

Zumba classes? Citizens Advice? Dominoes? What about an African drumming hub? Or a gallery cum café cum bakery, heralding the relentless progress of the sour dough loaf along the Upper Clapton Road towards the Stamford Hill junction?

Three things stand out

One is a sense of isolation that many experience living locally. It’s not just old people living on their own, but also the working young, single parents, couples with children. We lead single tracked lives. It’s certainly not helped by having so few places to meet and, for many, so little time to do so.

If loneliness is a challenge, so too for many of us is our health. As it turns out Hackney is a very heavy borough. We’re in the fat lane. Type two diabetes is increasingly indicated as we snack on fast sugars and sit around in cafes on our laptops. Many families don’t bother to cook fresh food or eat together. This, then, is the second thing.

So, taking these two together, we come up with a proposal for this derelict toilet block:   “A Village Hall and Community Kitchen”. And we find a partner – the wonderful Made in Hackney, a cookery school on its own goddam mission to change the way we cook and eat.

But there’s still another thing. We actually live in an area with one of the largest communities of Charedi Orthodox Jews outside Brooklyn. Given its kosher dietary laws, food is not going to be the thing that brings us together.

In fact there’s not a lot that brings us together. Whilst the Charedim are a brilliantly organised community in which, as a member, it is difficult to feel alone (as Rabbi Pinter tells us), to an outsider they can seem quite standoffish. I know it’s not intended personally, but even so.

The Mayor of Hackney

In addressing those gathered to mark the launch of the Liberty Hall fundraiser, Phil Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney, reminds us that good community relations don’t just happen by accident. It’s a piece of work that takes place on the ground, in wards like ours, where neighbours negotiate with one another the bins and the back extensions of shared civic space.

Institutions of civil society can help, says Adrian Newman, the Bishop of Stepney. Where we have prior relationships it’s more likely that we are going to talk together, even act together. But where the bonds that link us are frayed, we become vulnerable to divisive interests, paranoia and centrifugal forces.

Bishop Adrian refers to other places where organised groups have worked with a local authority to bring community assets back into use.  He mentions the Community Land Trust in Mile End in Tower Hamlets, turning a redundant hospital into genuinely affordable housing.So where are we in Stamford Hill on the social capital continuum? Through Clapton Commons, the network that is working to bring the toilet block back into community use, at least we have started the conversation.

And it’s through this conversation that we come up with our third thing:

Cycle Repair

It turns out that bicycling is surprisingly big in the Charedi community. And, as the rabbi says, where there is cycling there is also a need for cycle repair (though not on the Sabbath, natch). And so, to serve the whole community, we include a cycle repair station in the planning application.

In fact we also come up with a fourth thing: a community garden.

And a fifth thing: a flower stall.

And, of course, a sixth thing: a coffee kiosk. Quite soon we will no longer need to walk at least 13 minutes to find the nearest flat white with almond milk.

These, then, are the six things will make up Liberty Hall. But it’s going to be more than service delivery. Liberty Hall is already an adventure in hyphenating a community, putting “the common” back into Clapton Common…

“You know there’s all this talk nowadays about Iphones and Ipads,” says the rabbi, sounding a little old fogeyish, “Well I say, let’s make Liberty Hall a We Pad!”and then walks off, laughing.

It’s only then that I see what he’s done there.  We’ve all been out-punned by the rabbi.

Rabbi Pinter, Mayor of Hackney, Revd William Campbell-Taylor and the Bishop of StepneyClapton Commons in front of Liberty Hall

Revd Monica Stewart in the Common Room

Ms Jackie Benjamin, Head Teacher at Tyssen School, in the Common RoomSix Billboards at Liberty Hall

Mayor of Hackney and the Village HallNynke Brett from Made in HackneyRabbi Pinter and Bishop AdrianCoffee George and Nicolas announce the KioskWorm London's Katie and the Flower Stall

Liberty Hall

Cycling Clerics

all photos used by kind permission of Max Colson Photography

Thanks especially to Laura Knight for the posters