In 2009, I heard about the Big Lunch, a nationwide campaign to get as many people having street parties on a single day as possible, with the intention of getting neighbours to hang out with each other and rediscover a sense of community spirit. When I volunteered as a coordinator on their website, I was delighted to find that my neighbour Lisa had already done the same. That year, we coordinated a small party on the playground at the back of our flats, and the people who lived in the homes surrounding us contributed food and drink. Neighbours old and new, many of whom had never met, let alone broken bread, shared a Big Lunch together. Lisa and I, along with our housemates and partners, were so enthused by what we experienced that we decided to up the stakes a little this year.
We live on the Lockner estate, a council estate between Kingsland Road and De Beauvoir Square in Dalston. It’s a beautiful place. Four playgrounds separate six blocks, which house about two hundred homes. Ten of us, from four flats, got together to brainstorm the party. Lisa, now president of our local Tenants and Residents Association, had procured a small budget from our local council, and with this we began to get to work. We designed and printed flyers, and hand delivered them to each of the homes on the estate, introducing ourselves and explaining the ethos behind the Big Lunch. For weeks before the event, some of our team were working industriously, making a magical den and home-made bunting, from African fabrics bought cheaply on Dalston’s Ridley Road Market.
The day itself was magical indeed. In the morning, we hung the bunting, built the den and enlisted young volunteers to help us blow up helium balloons. The neighbouring resident’s association of De Beauvoir Square, legendary for its own efforts to throw parties and build community spirit, lent us gazebos. Cyclelab in Hoxton set up a bike surgery (repairing and tuning up bicycles) and also a juice bar, serving freshly squeezed juices. Friends lent us their sound system, and despite having had about two hours sleep, painted children’s faces all day. Neighbours started to arrive, bringing dishes they had cooked. We’d asked people to cook a dish which either represented their heritage, or reminded them of childhood. We had a competition where everyone voted for their favourite dish, with prizes including some fancy olive oil and M & S vouchers. The winning dish was a mouthwatering bitesize morsel of Yorkshire pudding topped with a slice of roast beef, closely followed by Nigerian jolof rice and Bengali pakora. We had pão de queijo, cheeseballs made by different Brazilian households, which sat alongside the many dishes which were contributed to the table. A neighbour’s daughter, who lived on the estate as a kid, brought a stack full of ribs, and our councillors bought some posh sausages, adding to the barbeque which burned all day. Another neighbour made jugs of Pimms. Even the sun came out, cooking us all.
Things started heating up with a parkour workshop. Yao Gogoly from Parkour Generations took a group of kids (some bigger and balder than others) round the estate, teaching them to jump, leap, hop and walk on walls, poles and pipes. Dan Cundy, a local musician and busker, kept us entertained for hours with his double bass, getting us all to sing along to classic tunes in the sunshine. The children (of all agesand stages of hair loss) played inside the magical den. A girl who cartwheeled perfectly invoked an impromptu forward roll competition. Lots of kids helped us dig and water a patch of communal ground, in which we planted herbs, which we intend to keep expanding as a community herb garden. We cooked, eat, drank, laughed and played until the sun went down.
The Big Lunch is a remarkable initiative, which works. None of us want to grow up alone, separate from our neighbours, and afraid of the places we live in – and none of us have to. By breaking bread with our neighbours, by sharing our stories, our food, our cultures and our lives, we can build a sense of community; a sense of pride in our local neighbourhood; a sense of belonging. Now, we’re all starting to smile at each other and call each other by our names. We’re knocking on doors, sharing news, cups of tea, cans of beer, and even risottos, curries and pies. We’re sitting out on our front porches and greeting the people who walk by, as their attention is caught by the sunflowers which line our front gardens (which our neighbours didn’t ask permission to plant, and yet which the council now smile at too). Even the guy in the CCTV van which sits outside our estate has started to say hello.
Life for all of us is changing. Neighbours who used to say, “it’s not what it used to be round here,” are now saying, “it’s like the old days, when we all knew each other!” Newer neighbours, who have just moved in, are starting to get comfortable and get stuck into the process of building community, not being afraid to bring their diverse cultures and experiences to the table.
Life can be sweet. All it needs is each of us to take the initiative. The Big Lunch will be even bigger in 2011. Find out how you can start making the place you live into a brighter, warmer, more beautiful community by logging onto www.thebiglunch.com. It’s fun to break bread with your neighbours. And it might just make this world a nicer place to live in.