I was getting pretty concerned about the safety of loved ones before lockdown was announced. In addition to my role at We Make Places, heading up Urban Workbench, I teach a couple of days a week at the Manchester School of Art. I was uneasy at travelling on packed trains – no matter how long I washed my hands, I was in danger of taking the virus home to Kate who lives with a compromised immune system due to ongoing treatment for an autoimmune disease, as well as her elderly mother who lives with us.
Back in Manchester, myself and a colleague swiftly prepared for online teaching delivery and I began working from home before lockdown commenced or face-to-face teaching halted nationally and on reflection I’m really glad I did.
Meanwhile at the same time our engagement and joinery learning programmes were drawing to a halt and my father was rushed into intensive care at the other end of the country, thankfully not with Covid it turned out, but such a distressing time for family, magnified by the inability for anyone to go to hospital with him or visit. We are so lucky that he came out days later – he’s still recovering but he’s at home.
Kate has talked about the amazing spirit of our talented team who came together (online) as lockdown emerged, to brainstorm what has become our Social Emergency Plan, which we will be delivering across the communities we were working in pre-pandemic. This session was such a joyful and life-affirming process.
Whilst in furlough I have taken the opportunity to use the street where we live as a test bed for activities that our Social Emergency Plan could and will soon deliver. Writing to everyone in the street, I began by organising a game of socially distanced street-bingo. Closing the street off with wheelie bins and equipped with a megaphone and some hastily gathered prizes (toilet rolls, cheap plonk from the back of the cupboard!), I had no idea how this might be received. Needless to say it was a joyful, socially distanced riot, attended by a significant proportion of our neighbours.
We are so used to tackling social isolation and anxiety in the communities we work. It was clear really quickly, that these issues are rife in every community and street (including our own) under lockdown. During the space of a couple of hours of bingo Kate and I got to meet and make friends with considerably more neighbours than we have known in the 16 years since we moved in. Our pre-Covid busy lives, like those of many of our neighbours, meant interaction in our street was limited to our comings and goings to work, or brief hellos as we walked the dog. In a mere instant during collective adversity, this has changed.
In addition to the bingo events (currently fortnightly), thanks to Andy’s idea, we have invited the street to express themselves through haiku, posted up to windows on to the street on a Sunday afternoon – and it has become clear during this that Kate is the queen of haiku! We’ve also extended street interactions to creating built interventions – using my beloved hand saw and pallet wood I have constructed a lending library on our front wall (sanitised regularly!) and our street is making great use of this.
Whilst our lives are full of online connectivity using zoom, slack and other suddenly ‘essential’ tools, our communications with our street are strictly analogue, with weekly letters and no whatsapp or facebook. Our neighbours really appreciate receiving personal letters and judging by engagement in bingo and haiku, respond really well to them. We receive heartfelt letters and cards back and are happy in the knowledge that nobody is excluded through not having digital access. In a wonderful way, I know our street will never be the same again. We can no longer walk down it without stopping for a chat and we are all discussing the desire to continue activities and street closures once lockdown has passed.
I am not closed to the reality that whilst I have experienced these joyful happenings during lockdown, there is an invisible level of suffering across our communities on such an unimaginable scale. I genuinely feel this test-lab in our own street has prepared the way for taking our Social Emergency Plan out into other neighbourhoods. It’s good to see if it works in your own front yard first!