The famous flamingoes who used to live in Parsloe’s Park across the road from Gale Street are long gone. Some older residents have told us that when the flamingoes left the neighbourhood lots of other things left too. A sense of community, of quiet streets where they played outside on their bikes, of being told off if they were up to no good and experiencing freedom that allowed them to explore and extend their worlds with every summer that passed to new gravel pits reaching out across Dagenham and beyond to Southend. It’s with a sadness that many resident’s talk about the Becontree estate’s great history – a sense of loss expressed with each example of changes they see. Garden’s becoming overgrown, dog poo and litter on the street, people rushing past each other with each step more consumed by their mobile phones rather than taking in the world and those around them. It’s easy to feel like these problems are insurmountable the feeling that something is broken and can never be rebuilt.
But this doesn’t have to be the story. Fear doesn’t have to rule. We can each create change at our own level. During the co-design process for DIY Porters Lodge which has taken place over the last two years many residents who’ve been involved have been surprised and encouraged to see how many others in their immediate neighbourhood share their desire to build better spaces, increase the sense of community and work together to make the area safer and more attractive. They have seen shopkeepers taking ownership of planters, fellow residents cleaning up the street and neighbours taking action against dog poo. They have been reassured that other people feel the same as them and inspired to suggest they can work together to make change.
We haven’t brought the flamingoes back to Parsloe’s Park but we have brought them to the grey shop shutters aiming to make the whole seating area around the shops feel safer, more inviting and social place to be. Despite widespread fears that the art work would be immediately vandalised with graffiti (like on the shutters before they were painted) the flamingoes (designed and painted beautifully by artist Tom Berry) remain untouched and look beautiful, pluming their serene feathers.
In fact despite initial reservations and fears around potential damage, lots and lots of residents are really happy about how the flamingoes brighten up the corner around the shops and make it feel a much nicer place to sit or walk past. Young and old are connecting with the shutters on different levels – as a lovely piece of art, a celebration of the rich history of the area and a point of conversation and pride to discuss with their neighbours.
It’s very easy to feel like nothing will work when you want to try and change something. The risk that you’ll try something and it’ll be ruined by other people who don’t care. The fear that you’ll look stupid and waste time, money or effort. This might be the case but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps making the effort is enough of a change with an impact and reach far beyond it’s perceived limitations.
Ultimately, we all have the same fears and needs as human beings. To feel a sense of belonging with those around us whether through our family and friends, our neighbours and communities. We need spaces to connect and make these links, share with those around us and build a common understanding and experience of where we’re living – the unspoken identity that weaves within a place, neighbourhood or corner. To do this we need spaces that feel safe on streets where we can, in public, create the bonds and social ties that will knit the complex fabric of our communities together. Providing support and some form of stability in what often feels like our chaotic, ever changing lives.